As with many other care professionals – such as social workers, doctors, psychologists, and counselors – nurses have a high risk of burnout and “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue and burnout are not about the amount of work you do – how many hours you are actually at your job – but the type of work. These professions, that require emotional presence, compassion, and empathy – can be as draining as they are rewarding. With nursing, the hours are long, the work can physically demanding, and you come across difficult situations and people who you cannot always help. It’s a beautiful job, but it’s not an easy one. 

The challenges of nursing lie not only in the job itself but being able to balance everything else in your life. School, friendships, family, romantic relationships, personal time, exercise, balanced nutrition, spirituality… Just reading that list can be stressful. Getting it all in line is a completely different story.

In this video, I talked to my brother about how he perceived my work-life balance for the past few years. We lived together in our parents’ house for many years while I both worked as a nurse and continued my education. This gave him an up-close perspective on how balanced my life really was – one I often couldn’t see myself, as I was so in it.

In the video, I share some tips and advice on how to achieve the elusive work-life balance that some people start to wonder if it even exists.

  • Don’t overwork yourself. Taking care of yourself is an active process. If you are treating every marathon like a sprint, you will quickly exhaust yourself. Learning how to pace yourself will save you from early burnout and fatigue. You’re going on have enough on your plate – don’t add more things you don’t need and might not be able to handle.
  • Figure out what you want out of nursing. Examine your priorities. Everyone wants different things out of life, work, and nursing. Some people want to work as much as they can to save up for early retirement. Others want to work consistently and take many vacations. Your priority might be a nice house or saving up to be able to send your kids to school. Make sure you know what you are working towards – and be unapologetic about it. You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone else.
  • Create boundaries. Learning how to say no is one of the most important skills you will learn – and unfortunately, it’s not taught in school. You’re going to have different roles and responsibilities everywhere – at work, at school, with your family, and with your friends. You can’t expect to be everything to everyone, so practice keeping these areas defined and separate. When you’re with your family, be with your family. Turn off your phone and don’t check work emails at home.
  • Confront conflict head-on. Conflict in life is unavoidable. It can be tempting to try to ignore it and hope it goes away. But trying to avoid the things that are bothering you is just going to add even more stress to your life. Whether it’s a clash about shifts at work or a disagreement with a friend, you’ll be grateful you tackled the issues head-on.
  • Take more breaks. It’s natural to try and throw yourself into work when you feel that you have a lot to get done. I’m guilty of trying to sleep less in order to do more. However, I learned that I really ended up hurting myself. When we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t function as well. Our decision making is impaired and we end up making more mistakes. By remembering to get enough sleep we’re also reminding ourselves that the quality of our work is more important than the quantity. As I mentioned in my video, I actually set reminders on my watch to go to sleep. There are apps that remind you to get up and stretch while you’re studying or to take a break. Don’t be shy about using whatever tools can help you feel rested and functioning better.
  • Exercise. It might sound like just one more thing that you feel you have to do and is stressing you out, but working out regularly is going to help you relieve stress. Endorphins are the best anti-depressants and they will end up giving you more energy to do everything else you’re trying to get done. If you hate the gym or don’t have one nearby, find another way to get your body moving that doesn’t feel like punishment. Going out dancing, joining a hockey team, hula hooping to music in your room, or going out for walks while listening to an audiobook are all good for your body. Finds what works for you. The best workout is the one you will end up sticking to.
  • Stay organized. This is one thing that my brother said he thinks I did well. Having everything on a calendar, whether it’s on your phone or in a planner or on your wall, not only helps you stay on top of things but serves as a visual reminder of what you’re dedicating your time to. Color coding different things, like work, family, and school, can show you just how balanced – or unbalanced – your life is at the moment.

Remember to constantly check in with yourself and to see what is and isn’t working for you. As a nurse, you have the potential to help people and even save their lives. At the same time, you have to remember to take care of yourself first. As they say: you can’t pour from an empty cup. When you’re pouring consistently, you have to take care to constantly fill your cup as well.