Self-Care for Nurses: 6 Tips and Strategies

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Science in Nursing

Two smiling nurses enjoy a break outside.Working as a nurse can be immensely rewarding. As a 2021 report in Healthline noted, nurses:

  • Find great satisfaction in their work
  • Enjoy job stability
  • Have numerous options for specialization
  • Have good opportunities for advancement
  • Earn attractive salaries

But it’s no secret that nursing can also be challenging. In a 2022 survey of nurses, the American Nurses Foundation identified a host of challenges that nurses face, such as:

  • Stress
  • Burnout
  • Bullying
  • Exhaustion
  • Inadequate sense of support from employers

Given the demanding nature of the profession, many nurses are turning to self-care practices to help them cope. Self-care for nurses has become even more important in light of the ongoing nursing shortage and the lingering effects of a worldwide pandemic on the profession.

Learning about and practicing self-care is critical — not just for nurses but also for their patients.

What Is Self-Care for Nurses?

The National Institute of Mental Health describes the practice of self-care as a person doing things for themself that help them live well and strengthen both their mental and physical health. Self-care includes myriad activities ranging from exercising to eating nutritious foods to taking the time to express gratitude.

In explaining the connection between self-care and health, the Cleveland Clinic sets forth a broad definition of self-care that encompasses anything that people do (or refrain from doing) that will further their spiritual, emotional, physical, or psychological well-being.

The Attributes of Self-Care

Self-care also can be described by certain attributes. A study on self-care published in the International Journal of Nursing Sciences in 2021 concluded that the distinguishing attributes of self-care were:

  • Awareness, which enables an individual to self-monitor for indications that self-care is necessary
  • Self-control, which enables an individual to regulate their actions and manage their approaches to self-care
  • Self-reliance, which enables an individual to practice self-care successfully and adhere to a self-care plan

In 2020, an article in Nurse Education Today about the importance of self-care for nurses explained that cultivating certain characteristics can help nurses better care for themselves. Specifically:

  • While empathizing with patients is vital in nursing, nurses need to recognize that others’ suffering is separate from their own, personal suffering. Recognizing this distinction can help nurses avoid compassion fatigue (overwhelming emotional and physical exhaustion that can result in nurses’ becoming detached and unable to provide care) and be more receptive to practicing self-care.
  • Self-compassion. Nurses should show themselves the same level of understanding and kindness they would extend to others. Avoiding intense self-criticism and isolation can enable nurses to feel safe and more open to practicing self-care.
  • Emotion regulation. Having the capacity to control their emotions adequately in stressful situations can help nurses maintain their ability to care for themselves.
  • Self-awareness. Remaining aware of their own emotions and level of fatigue can enable nurses to respond to themselves with compassion and practice self-care.

Using the Nursing Process to Create a Self-Care Plan

A 2020 report in ONS Voice noted that the steps in the nursing process — a core component of practice that allows nurses to deliver holistic, patient-centered care — parallel the steps nurses can take to develop a self-care plan. Those steps are:

  • Assessment, which involves reviewing their physical, financial, spiritual, psychological, social, and emotional well-being
  • Diagnosis, which is the process of identifying specific areas for improvement
  • Development of interventions, which entails creating a plan for self-care with defined goals to address the areas that require improvement
  • Implementation of interventions, which translates to actively practicing the self-care outlined in the plan
  • Evaluation of results, which involves determining whether the goals of the interventions have been achieved and identifying necessary adjustments

Why Is Self-Care Important for Nurses?

Though it’s almost self-evident why self-care is beneficial for anyone to practice, it’s important to consider why self-care is important for nurses in particular.

Self-care can mitigate the effects that stress and burnout can have on nurses’ personal and professional lives. Studies such as those summarized below highlight what can happen to nurses in the absence of self-care.

Stress Can Have Significant Effects on a Nurse’s Quality of Life

The results of a study published in BMC Nursing in 2022 identified some specific negative effects of stress on a nurse’s life. The study noted that the top three sources of stress for nurses who participated in the study were:

  • Exposure to death and suffering
  • Being unprepared to deal with the emotions that stress can provoke
  • Managing conflicts with supervisors

Having to face those stressors, as well as others, on a regular basis could result in nurses’ experiencing:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Negative attitudes toward family members
  • Declining physical health
  • Reduced energy levels

Nurse Burnout Can Reduce the Quality of Patient Care

When nurses experience burnout, their patients’ quality of care and safety can suffer. In a recent study, the Journal of Nursing Management specifically focused on the relationship between nurse burnout and adverse events involving patients, finding that:

  • Of the nurses surveyed for the study, 33.5% reported making mistakes that had negative consequences for patients.
  • 51% reported they did not have sufficient time to pay proper attention to their patients.
  • 7% admitted performing procedures without the proper training.

The related harmful effects on patients included serious issues such as:

  • Pressure ulcers
  • Falls
  • Medication errors
  • Infections

Burnout Can Increase Turnover Among Nursing Staff

Increases in nurse turnover caused by burnout are only exacerbating the serious nursing shortage the country faces. For example:

  • A study published in Nursing Outlook in 2021 examined the relationship between burnout and turnover. It determined that each per unit increase on an emotional exhaustion scale was associated with a 12% increase in a nurse leaving their job.
  • According to a study on the factors associated with nurse burnout published in JAMA Network Open in 2021, 31.5% of nurses surveyed who had decided to leave their jobs reported that burnout contributed to that decision.

How Nurse Leaders Can Promote Self-Care for Nurses

Nurses need to be encouraged to prioritize self-care. Nurse leaders, nurse supervisors, and nurses who participate in nurse mentorship programs can employ a variety of strategies to promote self-care for nurses.

Promote Mental Health

Insurance platform Berxi suggests that managers can take a number of actions to motivate health care workers to take care of their mental health. For example, they can:

  • Encourage nurses to discuss their feelings and actively work to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues
  • Identify resources available to nurses to improve their mental health, and ensure that nurses can access those resources
  • Promote a positive working environment in which co-workers support each other
  • Serve as role models by practicing self-care themselves
  • Talk to nurses to identify the specific triggers and events that they feel are either physically or emotionally draining
  • Work to ensure that nurses’ insurance benefits include mental health care

Offer Self-Care Training

As a 2020 article in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing explained, providing self-care training to nurses is an effective way to promote a culture of self-care, and leaders should give nurses the opportunity to specify the topics covered in training. Training modules can provide practical advice on topics such as:

  • Eating well
  • Getting sufficient sleep
  • Exercising
  • Reducing stress
  • Team building
  • Supporting co-workers

Be Advocates for Nurses’ Well-Being

In an article on nurse self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Nurses Association (ANA) reminded nurse leaders of the importance of being advocates for nurses’ well-being and creating healthy work environments.

Nurse leaders’ advocacy efforts should demonstrate their commitment to the practice of self-care, according to a 2021 article in American Nurse. This can entail:

  • Developing creative approaches to staff rotations
  • Working with executive management to achieve more reasonable nursing assignments in terms of patient numbers and acuity
  • Limiting expectations on work done outside of scheduled shifts such as checking emails or reviewing lab results

6 Tips and Self-Care Strategies for Nurses

Self-care for nurses can take many forms. As the following self-care strategies for nurses illustrate, nurses can choose how to practice self-care in ways that resonate most with them.

1. Improve Sleep

According to the ANA, about 73% of nurses experience challenges with sleeping (either sleeplessness or sleeping too much). As part of a well-being initiative, the ANA offered nurses tips to improve their sleep. For example, they can:

  • Prioritize sleep by adhering to a sleep schedule, establishing a good sleeping environment (dark, cool, and comfortable), and getting between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
  • Wind down before going to sleep by shutting down electronic devices and performing relaxing activities such as stretching or meditation.
  • Manage worries by discussing them with a trusted person, limiting exposure to the news and social media, or maintaining a journal to document their concerns.
  • Keep track of sleep by wearing a fitness tracker, using an app, or recording the number of hours they sleep in a diary.
  • Manage light by blocking it or shading it during sleep time and increasing it to promote wakefulness.
  • Prepare for better sleep while they’re awake by going for a walk, enjoying nature, or consuming healthy foods.
  • Limit caffeine intake to no more than 400 milligrams each day, and refrain from consuming caffeine in the six hours before going to sleep,

2. Strengthen Mental Health

Nurses are more inclined to care for others than for themselves, and that extends to maintaining their mental health, a 2021 report in ONS Voice noted. The article offered strategies to strengthen nurses’ mental health. For instance, they can:

  • Seek professional help for mental health issues when necessary.
  • Express feelings and avoid suppressing them.
  • Disconnect from work both on a small scale (for example, on lunch breaks) and a large scale (such as taking vacations).
  • Maintain important personal connections with loved ones and friends.
  • Practice acts of kindness for others.
  • Take part in activities that spur happiness, such as hobbies.
  • Be introspective by assessing their personal welfare and regularly checking in on their feelings.
  • Be physically active on a consistent basis.
  • Avoid negative thought patterns by looking at situations objectively and analyzing whether their negative thoughts are useful.

3. Strengthen Physical Health

Another important facet of self-care for nurses is strengthening their physical health. While nurses understand the benefits of being physically healthy, it’s not always easy for them to do what’s necessary to achieve it. The Mayo Clinic offered these simple tips that nurses can use to strengthen their physical health when they feel overwhelmed or experience stress:

  • Stick to a healthy, well-balanced diet and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Exercise
  • Practice deep breathing and stretch regularly.
  • Avoid risky behaviors such as abusing drugs or gambling excessively.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers these recommendations for a healthy diet:

  • Focus on fiber intake for good digestive health by eating food such as raw vegetables, whole grain cereal, and whole fruits.
  • Ingest calcium and vitamin D to promote bone health by eating foods such as spinach and salmon and drinking beverages fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  • Work potassium into a diet plan for good kidney, muscle, and heart functioning by eating foods such as beet greens and bananas.
  • Try to avoid added sugars — which can lead to weight gain, obesity, and heart disease — by drinking water, flavoring yogurt with fruit, and skipping whipped cream and flavored syrups at coffee shops.
  • Go for unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats for heart health by eating nuts instead of cheese, getting protein from eating beans instead of fatty meat, and cooking with canola oil or corn oil instead of butter.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has established these guidelines for adults’ physical activity:

  • Perform a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.
  • Conduct muscle-strengthening activities two days a week.

4. Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness involves seeing and feeling things as they are and accepting them without judgment, according to an article in Nurse Education Today. Being present in this way makes it possible to acknowledge negative feelings without being overwhelmed by them. It offered tips for achieving mindfulness such as:

  • Practicing meditation to improve perspective
  • Breathing deeply to promote calmness
  • Employing caring touch, for example, by placing a hand over one’s heart to increase feelings of safety and connection

In 2021, the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing published a report explaining that individuals who practice mindfulness can be more objective in stressful situations. The report noted that self-care for nurses should include strategies for practicing mindfulness that incorporate elements such as:

  • Regularly committing to mindfulness by pledging to be humble, prepared, courageous, and present
  • Practicing reflection by paying attention to each moment, as well as noting one’s feelings, thoughts, judgments, and physical sensations
  • Opening the door to awareness by remaining curious about experiences
  • Fostering a strong work environment that is mutually supportive

5. Practice Emotional Self-Care

A 2022 report in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing offered several strategies for emotional self-care such as:

  • Seeking assistance from workplace supports, counselors, life coaches, or medical professionals when emotional distress is affecting one’s well-being
  • Remaining alert for emotional triggers and trying to act with awareness rather than emotion
  • Acknowledging one’s emotions, but then taking steps to manage and express them safely
  • Maintaining knowledge about techniques that have worked in the past to address one’s emotional situations
  • Listening to others, accepting their feedback, and recognizing when others offer opportunities to strengthen one’s emotional health
  • Taking regular breaks to interrupt the arousal of potentially strong emotions
  • Setting boundaries with co-workers to preserve one’s emotional balance

6. Practice Self-Care Both at Work and at Home

Consumer health care company Performance Health reminds nurses that they can practice self-care while at work and at home. For example:

  • To strengthen physical health:
    • At work, nurses can walk on lunch breaks, park far away from their workplace, or do paperwork while standing.
    • At home, nurses can plan and prepare meals ahead of time, exercise, and go to bed early.
  • To strengthen emotional health:
    • At work, nurses can praise themselves for good work, thank others for their work, and look for opportunities to laugh.
    • At home, nurses can draft a list of things that give them joy or participate in a hobby that helps them express their emotions.
  • To strengthen mental health:
    • At work, nurses can attend training sessions, serve as a mentor, or share their knowledge with other nurses.
    • At home, nurses can listen to podcasts or audiobooks, read, or engage in activities they enjoy such as completing puzzles or playing games.

Additional Resources for Nurses Who Want to Practice Self-Care

Numerous resources are available for individuals who want to continue exploring self-care for nurses:

Promoting Resilience in Nursing

The bedrock of health care, nurses need to look after their own well-being. Nurses who enjoy strong mental, physical, and emotional health are better equipped to help their patients. Prioritizing self-care can increase nurses’ job satisfaction and enhance their ability to improve their patient’s lives.