Over the past few years, nurses have been described as heroes for the care they provided during the COVID-19 pandemic and the care they continue to provide under difficult working conditions. While it is the highest honor to be referred to as a hero, it can be a dangerous sentiment.
My nine-year-old is enthralled with comic books and the Marvel Universe, and as a result, I have also become quite familiar with heroes and superheroes.
Surprisingly, the life of a superhero is not all glitz and glamor. Many superheroes are flawed and have deep emotional wounds they are trying to fix or avoid. Many heroes have a dark and traumatic past, the same as supervillains. So what makes a person a hero versus a villain?
Well, according to my son, and I am paraphrasing, heroes are selfless, while villains fight for selfish reasons.
This made me think about what is the difference between selfless and selfish.
What is the difference between selfless and selfish?
According to the Webster dictionary, selfish means acting in one’s own interest at the cost of others, while selfless means putting the needs of others before your own, even if it means causing yourself harm.
If we are using this definition of selfless, and it is the selfless actions that make a person a hero, then yes, nurses have rightfully earned that title. Everytime they skip lunch, work a double shift, or care for a contagious patient or a combative patient, they are putting their patients before themselves.
Back in October 2022, there was a shooting in a Texas hospital. The shooter killed two nurses, yet the medical staff, including nurses, still worked to save the gunman’s life. I am sure they did it without even thinking twice because nurses are built to save.
Helping and saving people is ingrained in us, but at what cost? Burnout and mental health struggles among nurses has skyrocketed since the start of COVID-19.
Being referred to as a hero is an honor, but should we even be asked to fill those shoes? Do we need to be selfless in our work? Is there a sweet spot between helping our patients while at the same time putting our needs front and center?
We should not be made to feel selfish for putting ourselves first. We should not have to choose between ourselves and our patients. We are not placing patients in harm’s way when we decide that our mental health is important.
It is not a selfish act. In retrospect, we are actually advocating for our patients when we are asking for better working conditions or taking the steps needed to care for ourselves. Better working conditions for nurses results in better care for patients.
So how do we fix this hero expectation?
The healthcare environment is in a perilous place, and it will take nursing leaders and probably government involvement to truly fix the healthcare crisis and the nursing shortage, but for yourself, there are things you can do.
Here are some individual self-care suggestions the American Nurses Association gives us in the American Nurse journal.
- Acknowledge your hurt and how severe it is.
- Avoid negative social media and news coverage.
- Practice gratitude taking 2 minutes every morning thinking about five people you are grateful for.
- Stay connected to colleagues and check in with each other after each day.
- Find ways to destress on your days off.
- Talk with a mental health professional or join a support group.
- If you have an idea of how to improve your work environment, share it. Don’t be afraid to use your voice.
- Get outdoors and relax in the fresh air.
- Make yourself a priority and take care of yourself through exercise, a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest.
We may not have complete control over the healthcare environment, but we do have control over how we react and respond.
While it is an honor to be called a hero, we must ensure we are not sacrificing our own health.
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