My mother is a nurse, and in her mid-70s, she’s still working as a practice nurse in New Zealand. Being a nurse forms part of her identity and she gets an enormous amount of meaning and purpose from that. It’s more than just a job for her. Growing up, nursing played a large influence in my life, but my mother suggested I head down the medical school path instead. So, I moved from the North Island to the South Island of New Zealand to pursue a ‘med intermediate year’.
But I also found myself drawn to social anthropology and psychology. I followed this interest through a BA Dip Grad but once I finished, having spent some time as a cook on the Xena and Hercules film crew sets, I found myself thinking, “what am I going to do now?” I was struggling to find a sense of meaning and purpose in my career.
In the back of my mind, I still thought nursing was a great option. Nursing offers incredible opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives at every end of the spectrum, from birth to life to death. After investigating it, a week later I was enrolled in a nursing program. I loved it; it didn’t matter where I was on placement – I loved everything about it.
I loved working in the intensive care unit (ICU) from the first time I went into that area. I really enjoyed the pace, the acuity and the on-the-edge feeling. When a patient is in intensive care, they’re on that life and death edge, but there’s also a good chance that they’re going to make it. That’s what brought me into it.
After travelling to the UK and working in London at St Mary’s in Paddington for a couple of years, I returned to New Zealand. I worked in the private and public sectors for a while before taking up a position in the ICU at Wellington Regional Hospital.
I began to ask the question, what does a great day at work look like? A large proportion of graduate nurses drop out during the transition period between university and entry to practice. Some nurses embrace the challenge, thrive and feel really well supported, but there are a number that don’t feel this way.
I looked at conceptualising what intensive care nurses think wellbeing is and what strengthens it during my PhD. A lot of it related to feeling respected, valued and supported as well having that work/life balance. Now, in collaboration with the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program – Victoria and with the support of a Rosemary Bryant Foundation grant, we’re broadening that out to listen to student, graduate and experienced nurses’ voices to understand how they characterise and enable wellbeing.
Our study has started to unpack nurse wellbeing during the global COVID-19 pandemic. With this mixed methods data we can assess the models that many organisations currently use and identify effective and implementable interventions, contributing to workforce sustainability.
We’re not just looking at what’s going wrong. We are also focusing on what might work for nurses, including psychological flexibility, grit and the use of wellbeing strengtheners. The intention here is to establish a balanced approach to measuring wellbeing. We’re not necessarily going to identify the ‘next best thing’ that’s going to make the world of difference, but instead we’re going to work with nurses to co-create a toolkit that they can use and adapt throughout their careers.
We need to find the right tools for specific problems. Psychology – specifically social and organisational psychology – has been around for a long time and there’s a lot of great work already happening. This work has more recently been accentuated with the focus on positive psychology. Increasingly we are understanding that wellbeing is highly contextualised; so, what might be implemented at an organisational level, with all intents and purposes of making a difference, might not end up being focused on the right area.
If we can find the pockets that are currently flourishing, hopefully our research can augment and help highlight the excellent work that does exist. Rather than offering something completely different and new, the research might help accentuate an organisation’s wellbeing program by capitalising on what might be working well on the frontline or crafting something new that they perhaps haven’t tried before.
Nursing is a great profession; I love it and we need more nurses. I’m constantly surprised at the wide range of amazing work nurses already do for their wellbeing (or self-care strategies), and what organisations are implementing, particularly during COVID-19. There are work wellbeing programs, wellbeing champions, mentoring, preceptorship, psychologists and structured debriefs after significant events – much of this is focused towards preventing illbeing. There remains great opportunity to build capability for wellbeing.
What I get the greatest value from is trying to share information with others because I can see all the wealth of information that already exists. If I think back to my mum, still thriving and getting an immense amount of meaning and purpose from nursing, I hope that experience can be crafted throughout more peoples’ journeys as they move through their careers.
- As told to Laura Van Rens
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