Thursday, August 30, 2018

Sharing work 'wounds' helps nurses prioritize their own self-care

By Louise Kinross

A six week narrative group for inpatient nurses at Holland Bloorview increased nurses' empathy for their own emotional reactions to working with children after painful bone surgeries or life changing trauma, and their families, according to a study published in The Journal of Pediatric Nursing last month.

BLOOM reported earlier on how the narrative training increased empathy for patients and families and for the nursing team.

This piece looks at how the six, 90-minute sessions of writing, drawing and talking about their own nursing stories elicited greater self-compassion in nurses. Participants
 were able to share work-related emotional wounds they had sometimes carried for decades.

Knowing they were not alone in experiencing emotions like grief and regret allowed them to let go of what they called medicine's "myth of perfection," and to recognize that to provide the best care, they must first care for their emotional and physical wellbeing.

Each session began with reading of a patient story, poem or comic that addressed common themes in children's rehab such as 'Seeing from different points of view; 'Obstacles to empathy,' and 'Making room for hope.'

Facilitators led a discussion of the reading, then gave participants a related writing or drawing prompt. For example, 'In a three-panel comic, tell the story of a patient through their parents' eyes.' Participants then discussed and shared their work.

In the study, empathy is defined as "The capacity to imagine the situation of each patient and their family—understanding their feelings and perspective, and responding in ways that make patients feel heard and cared for."

Participants worked with children hospitalized at Holland Bloorview following painful bone surgeries or life-changing trauma, such as traumatic brain injury, or with complex medical problems. Each nurse did an in-depth interview before and after the group.

Prior to the intervention, nurses said little about self-empathy, and instead spoke about efforts to control or hide emotions like grief, regret or guilt. "I'm still learning and trying to control my emotions," said one. "If I can just not...freak out right away." They also 
expressed an intense desire to avoid failure. "I need to learn to...try not to take it personally, but you do. Because you feel like it's your fault, even though it's not."

Their efforts to cope with stress were often reactive, and didn't involve seeking out nursing peers. For example, "I would go myself and cry in one of the rooms."

In addition, they regularly described struggling to absorb difficult or abusive behaviours in patients, parents, and co-workers. "You want to be able to stand up for yourself, but it's hard to figure out that line with family-centred care," said one. "Professionally too, right?"

After the narrative group, many nurses said it was the first time in their career they'd been able to talk about emotional wounds from traumatic work incidents. "It happened like 17 years ago," said one. "You don't realize sometimes that you haven't totally resolved something." And: "[The intervention was] like therapy on a whole different kind of level."

Hearing that all nurses make mistakes and experience challenging emotions led them to let go of the pretense of perfection, and to be more comfortable with ambiguity. "Not being so scared to tell them I don't know... because we don't have all the answers," is how one described the change.

After the group, nurses stressed the need to proactively take care of themselves. "It means not overworking your body, like not working more hours than you're physically capable of, making sure you take your breaks at work, making sure you've made time to do fun things outside of work."

They were less likely to fixate on mistakes, acknowledging the need for humility and self-compassion. "Not being so upset with myself when things don't go right," said one. "[The intervention] confirmed that it's okay if I don't know, because not everyone knows everything either," said another. "I can see how that shift happened throughout the weeks."

After the group, participants were more likely to reflect creatively on mistakes and figure out how to do something differently the next time, and to approach, rather than avoid, emotionally charged family situations. 

One theme that only surfaced after the group was pride in nursing. "The once-a-week [intervention] really brings you back to the purpose of my role..." said one. Sharing stories that revealed the profound influence nurses have on patients and families boosted their confidence. "I felt good about myself being a nurse being part of the group...because it gives me in-depth thinking of... how much we are doing right, like in terms of client care."

Many were reminded of why they became nurses in the first place. "I'm impacting people's lives," said one. "I think we forget how much we do here. Just talking about it, listening to the other staff's experiences here and elsewhere, it makes you realize how important your role is." 

This study was funded by a Catalyst Grant from the Bloorview Research Institute. The lead investigator was Keith Adamson, then collaborative practice director at Holland Bloorview. Also on the team was Sonia Sengsavang, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology from Laurier University and Michelle Balkaran, a nurse who is now an interim operations manager at Holland Bloorview. The three facilitators were Andrea Charise and Shelley Wall, both professors at the University of Toronto, and BLOOM editor Louise Kinross, who is also the parent of a son who has been an inpatient at Holland Bloorview.