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    L Jane Acree

Selflessness in Nursing – a Virtue or Unhealthy?


Do you remember this song? “Work your fingers to the bone – what do you get? Bony fingers!” How healthy is it for a nurse to be selfless at work – and sometimes to the degree that your own health is put at risk – in the name of good patient care? Is it really a virtue to give so much of yourself that you become the one with chronic health problems?

Isn’t nursing, by nature, dangerous enough? What nurse do you know who doesn’t complain of chronic and acute assaults to back, feet, legs, muscles, digestion, and immune system. Who doesn’t hold in their frustration (and everything else) and run the risk of  developing hypertension, headaches, and frequent UTI’s? Nurses are constantly at risk for contaminated needle sticks, as well as verbal and/or physical abuse from patients or family members. Some of these injuries have even been fatal.

Humans are unpredictable, and they can become upset and dangerous very easily. I believe that selflessness is not a virtue when it means neglecting your own health needs. That only leads to injuries and illnesses – and possibly a shorter career and pain-filled retirement. A willingness to be superhuman for your patients is not going to benefit them in the long run. You are valuable, and you are worth too much to let your career be cut short.

Are you one of the ones? Do you stand too long, lift too much weight, hold your water and bowels too long, dare not drink enough water, skip meals, and protect patients at ALL costs? Many treat themselves as if they were machines & not humans. I have been guilty of all of the above – and I know many others who are in the same boat now.

Who started this insane theme in motion? They taught us in nursing school that nurses are seen as non-humans by patients, because patients could not bear to be as vulnerable as is required with real humans. And we students were convinced that this was right, and too many have accepted it and rolled with it.

Can you think of any other profession which creates this type of self-sabotaging environment for their students? And what made us accept that bull as if it was healthy and virtuous? Even though most would say that they don’t really think that way, take a look at how many of your coworkers suffer with career-related chronic physical, mental, and/or emotional issues.

Most nurses love their careers in the first three years or so. But once they endure enough abuse, their passion wanes quite a bit. They may still love caring for patients – but their physical suffering (which is just beginning) causes them to look at other career options.

But, there are some nurses who didn’t buy the lie. These are truly enjoying fulfillment in their careers. To them, selflessness and virtue mean, “I will take excellent care of myself so that I can be well for you.” THIS is truly a healthy virtue – and a healthy nurse. Be healthy yourself – first. Then, you can take awesome care of others. They are counting on you. Can you count on you to be good to you?

Here’s my advice. Tell your patients that you will be taking a lunch break, and that a coworker will fill in.The smart patients will be happy for that, because they want you to be “on top of your game.” Be assertive, take your breaks, don’t stand so long, get lifting help, take time to put your feet up, eat your lunch, exercise, rest, relax, take up a hobby. Don’t worry. Be happy. You’ll be a better nurse, and a happier person, that way.


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One Response

  1. It also doesn’t help the situation when you have a manager that tells you its okay to take abuse from others (nurses and doctors) as long as those people have “great patient care”. This same manager also encourages employees to under-report (or not report at all) instances of abuse from patients. This kind of environment is not beneficial to nurses who may not feel justified in taking care of themselves first. I think every new nurse should read this piece so they can learn not to set themselves up to fail!

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