Pursuing a career in nursing can be a deeply rewarding career. Not only is nursing relatively well paid compared to other professions, but nurses also regularly report high levels of professional satisfaction from the work they undertake.
However, as is the case with many other professions — particularly those in the medical field — nursing is a career path that is also paved with many challenges. While many of these challenges are a natural consequence of the work itself, others are a result of the broader conditions in hospitals and medical organizations across the country.
With this in mind, preparing for these challenging situations can not only help you to manage them better, but will also ensure that you are more likely to stick with this career path in the longer term. Nursing has a relatively high attrition rate compared to other professions, which has only gotten worse both during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Given the many challenges that nurses will face in their careers, it is essential for anyone planning on embarking on this career to know in advance what they are. This will allow them not only to make a better-informed decision about whether this career path is for them but will also help them to develop strategies early on in their career to deal with them.
In this article, we will focus on what some of the main challenges faced by nurses in their careers are and discuss some of the strategies that can be adopted to manage them. So, if you are either someone planning on embarking on a career in nursing or are already a nurse and struggling with some of these challenges, keep reading!
Long shifts and anti-social working patterns
One of the most immediate challenges that nurses will face in their careers, are the working patterns that all healthcare professionals must follow.
Due to the demands of the job and the difficulties of scheduling round-the-clock staffing in healthcare organizations, nurses will often be required to work shifts of up to 10 or 12 hours in duration. When you consider all the important administrative work that needs to be done and any shift change or handover procedures, these shifts can often stretch further beyond this. When you add commuting into the mix and the difficulties of taking full breaks when you are on shift, these working patterns can be incredibly taxing.
The grueling work patterns of nursing shifts are exacerbated for those nurses working night shifts. Night shift work disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which is the internal clock that controls sleeping and wake cycles. Prolonged exposure to night work has been shown to significantly increase the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Night shifts also present an increased risk of suffering an occupational injury, particularly given that tiredness can often result in the temporary reduction of cognitive ability and fine motor skills. This can lead to a loss of focus, attention and productivity.
Irregular and changing shift patterns can also often prove a challenge for nurses and other healthcare professionals to manage. This can make it difficult to adjust to and maintain a consistent schedule, particularly as you try to fit things into your spare time such as exercising and socializing.
Dealing with demanding shifts
In terms of what tips you should follow to deal with these demanding shift patterns — particularly night shifts — there are a number of practical steps you can take to reduce their impact.
Firstly, regardless of whether you are working night shifts for a prolonged or short period of time, it is essential to set a schedule and to keep to it. Getting quality sleep during the day after a night shift can be challenging. As such, it is important to set a clear schedule for when you will sleep after your shift and for how long.
Building on this, it is also important to build in a transitionary period when you have a night shift coming up. It is not advisable to simply jump in and out of a period of working nights. This will make it more difficult for your sleep-wake cycle to adjust when the time comes. Make the transition in and out of night shift work slowly, which will give your body time to properly adjust to the changes in your circadian rhythm.
As part of this, you should also take care to create a dedicated sleeping area that will encourage you to go to sleep. This might mean setting yourself up with blackout blinds that will make it easier to sleep during the day, as well as using earplugs. Any amount of daylight seeping into your sleeping area can significantly impair the quality of sleep you will get.
Similarly, both day and night workers are advised to carefully monitor and limit their caffeine intake. While coffee and other sources of caffeine will help you to stay focused during your shift, they can often disrupt your sleep when work has finished. Caffeine can often take hours to fully metabolize in your body. As such, it is advisable to stop consuming caffeine between six to eight hours before you intend to sleep.
Another important tip to deal with either regular day shifts or night shifts, is to pay close attention to your health. Workers regularly undertaking night shifts are at a higher risk of developing health issues such as insomnia, high blood pressure and weight gain.
With that said, it is important that you pay close attention to any changes in your physical health so you can be proactive in managing them. Ensure that you are eating high-quality, micro-nutrient dense food that keeps you satiated throughout your shifts. Also be sure to keep hydrated!
Lastly, it is also incredibly important to maintain relationships with your friends and family if you are working irregular patterns. Anti-social working patterns can often disrupt how and when you socialize, which can often lead to increased feelings of social isolation. So, it is important to proactively schedule meetings with friends or downtime with family to combat these feelings.
The physical demands of nursing
In addition to the physical toll that demanding, irregular and antisocial shift patterns will take on you, there are other physical stresses a career in nursing will place on your body.
During a typical shift, nurses will be required to undertake a wide range of physically demanding tasks. This could include everything from helping to lift, reposition and transport patients, to carrying other heavy objects and standing for prolonged periods of time.
Although it might not seem like it, this type of regular strain on the body can often lead to injuries which can significantly impair nurses’ quality of life outside work.
To combat these risks and associated injuries, it is important to follow any safe handling protocols that have been put in place by your workplace. This includes safe lifting, manual handling and patient lifting procedures. All nursing programs and workplaces will provide training in this aspect of the work, with many healthcare organizations requiring regular refresher courses.
It is also important to ask for help when necessary, rather than trying to attempt any heavy lifts yourself. Regular exercise will also help you to maintain your strength, stamina and flexibility, which will have immediate carryover into your work. Be sure to check whether the healthcare organization you work for offers this support as part of the terms of your employment, such as a subsidized gym membership or exercise classes.
The emotional toll of nursing
One of the most rewarding aspects of pursuing a career in nursing is that it exposes you to work that is both personal and meaningful. As a healthcare professional, you are involved in delivering care to those most in need of it. The feeling of professional satisfaction you get when a successful medical intervention is made in a patient’s life is one of the main reasons that so many nurses are drawn to and stay in the profession.
Given the sensitive nature of delivering healthcare, nurses inevitably find themselves becoming emotionally invested in their patient’s health outcomes. This can be a heavy burden to carry, particularly if a specific course of treatment does not go according to plan or is not as successful as hoped.
The emotional burden of being involved in a caring profession such as nursing is one of the most often overlooked challenges associated with the profession. It is only in recent years that healthcare organizations have started to take it seriously and to provide tools to help nurses manage it.
As a nurse, it is important to find and develop a strong support system that will help you to talk about your feelings in general and to deal with the more difficult aspects of the job. It is essential that you find ways to express your feelings after working a difficult shift or experiencing a particularly traumatic case.
Reaching out to friends, family and co-workers to talk to them is one way of doing this, although it is equally advisable to get in contact with a professional counselor or therapist when necessary. Mental health professionals will be able to give you more concrete tools and strategies to help you deal with this side of the job, and you will often find that your employers have made this resource available to you as part of your employment contract.
Keeping your skills sharp
As a registered nurse working in a healthcare setting, you will be required to ensure that your knowledge is kept up to date with the latest developments in medical science and nursing best practices. Failure to do so could put you at risk of failing to meet the conditions of your nursing license, which could jeopardize your career.
One of the challenges nurses will face in their career is keeping abreast of the latest developments in the field of nursing and incorporating these in their daily work.
Some of the new advances you will need to keep abreast of include technological advances in how healthcare is delivered, such as new software, diagnostic tools or other programs. Learning these new systems can be challenging for both early and mid-career professionals, particularly when these learning and development obligations must be balanced with your daily working responsibilities.
To keep up with the latest advances in nursing theory and practice, it is advisable to find ways of challenging yourself in a structured, focused and relevant way. This might come in the form of attending conferences or workshops, or enrolling in a dedicated AGACNP program of study. Rockhurst University’s online programs can be completed in just four semesters, and all the coursework is accessible (and can be completed) wherever you are.
Covid-19 and nursing: Staff shortages and attrition rates
According to the World Health Organization, the global nursing workforce is comprised of approximately 27 million nurses and midwives. This global workforce plays a critical role in promoting health, preventing disease and delivering community care.
Alarmingly, however, the World Health Organization has identified a global shortage of healthcare workers, with nurse staffing numbers at particularly critical levels. According to this report by the World Health Organization, nurses and midwives represent more than 50% of the current global workers in healthcare.
These global shortages have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has placed healthcare systems and organizations under extreme stress over the course of the last two years. The biggest impact the pandemic has had on healthcare systems has been the toll it has taken on healthcare workers themselves, with attrition rates among nurses at an all-time high.
While the worst of the pandemic might now be behind us, many of these challenges remain. In fact, while the pandemic certainly helped to exacerbate attrition rates among healthcare workers at all levels, this problem has existed for quite some time.
In addition to the more general reasons why nurses choose to leave the profession — such as difficult working conditions, low pay in certain parts of the world and other staffing issues — there are several specific issues that have exacerbated this situation.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of the reasons for the nursing shortage include: the average age of retirement for nurses being 51 years of age, a shortage of nursing school faculty to train the next generation, increased demand across all levels of healthcare organizations and increased specialization creating a shortage of certain types of nurses and an overabundance of others.
Nevertheless, whatever the reasons for the global shortage in nurses might be, it is clear that nurses at all stages of their careers need to be proactive in meeting and managing the many obstacles and challenges the profession includes.
The joys of nursing
Despite the challenges that you will inevitably meet during your career, nurses continue to report consistently high levels of professional satisfaction. Nursing is very much a vocation, rather than simply a technical profession.
According to a 2017 survey of registered nurses conducted by AMN Healthcare, 83% of the nurses surveyed stated that they felt satisfied with their careers, with a further two-thirds stating that they would encourage others to pursue a similar career path.
This statistic speaks to what makes nursing such a rewarding career path and why so many continue to be drawn to it, despite the challenges you will face.
Nursing is inherently a caring profession. For many, the privilege of helping patients during some of the most difficult times in their lives is a calling that is simply too strong to ignore. In fact, according to one survey of registered nurses, the opportunity to help individuals and to make a difference in their lives was by far the biggest source of professional satisfaction.
Regardless of the personal feelings of satisfaction the job gives nurses, however, it is clear that healthcare organizations need to do as much as possible to lessen workloads and to make the working environment as supportive as possible.
At the same time, it is also clear that nurses themselves need to be proactive in meeting these obstacles head on in order to manage the more challenging aspects of the job. This is particularly important in circumstances where the organizational supports offered by their employers might be slow to materialize.
However, by following the above tips and developing concrete strategies, you will be able to work towards meeting this need.