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A thoughtful reflection on the mental health and wellbeing of Occupational Health Nurses

Posted by Ann Caluori | Thu, 16/07/2020 - 15:52


Guest blog by Tracie Mckelvie, RGN and Specialist Practitioner in Occupational Health


Ensuring mental wellbeing can be particularly challenging within the Nursing profession. Nurses are known to promote health and wellbeing to others; they generally aim to “nurse” people back to health, but there is also a vital role in Nurses “nursing” people to a dignified death. From a biopsychosocial perspective, both aspects can present with challenges, but coupled with facing uncertainty and change that may influence outcomes, this can be particularly daunting.  


There have been several reports to highlight the plight that many Nurses face in terms of detriments to their health from their work, including an ever-increasing decline in their mental health, and while Nurses are very skilled up and competent in advising their patients on the importance of self-care and ways in which to implement this, when it comes to their own wellbeing, for many Nurses, more often than not this seems to be placed on the back burner. Depending on the environment, Nurses may be working with patients, or clients, their families, and even management, but each group will be educated and encouraged to look after themselves wherever they can.


Nurses are pivotal in providing this advice, and promoting self-care amongst ourselves should be one of the most important components within our profession to ensure that we are functioning to be the best that we can be, but this is not always the case. As a Specialist in Occupational Health Nursing, the ultimate aim is to ensure as best as possible the health and wellbeing of our working populations, however those who rely upon us can innocently overlook the fact that this is exactly who we are too; part of the working population, and we also need to keep well.  


So how do we achieve this? Who is there to look out for us? Do we need looking after, and if so, to what extent? I do believe that the psychological impact our work can have upon our wellbeing should be recognised by our managers, and amongst our colleagues too, but I also believe that we have a responsibility to ourselves; self-care doesn’t have to be arduous. It could even be argued that self-care is a concept that the majority of the population (working or not) can have some influence upon. The notion of self-care could be in the form of simply taking a few minutes out, eating well, sleeping well, taking some exercise, or engaging in a meaningful conversation with a sprinkle of laughter thrown in.


But how do Nurses manage their own and others expectations and demands? In my experience, due to our compassion and drive, we are often unintentionally responsible for introducing unrealistic expectations and demands, and this then becomes a reciprocated expected norm from those around us. A similar message is echoed in a report published today by Kinman, Teoh and Harriss (2020), where it is noted that it is our compassion and unrealistic expectations that can come at a personal cost to our wellbeing.


In occupational health, although we are not seen as “frontline”, ordinarily we are in high demand. This is even more so over recent months where many of us are finding ourselves responding to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. We are assisting those dealing with significant ill-health, and our people and their managers rely upon us for our continued support and our prompt advice. We mentally absorb the detail of each experience and the impact that this has on our clients, and this can be emotionally draining, however the empathy and compassion that is embedded in us, along with the desire not to let anyone down simply takes over. Nurses are often seen as the problem solvers; we’re known to fix things and make things better, and we're invincible, aren’t we? While this can be flattering, it is very easy for the pressure, and for our own and others’ expectations of us, to build up to unmanageable levels which in turn poses a detrimental threat to our own wellbeing. Being able to recognise this is key to improving upon and maintaining our mental wellbeing.


Kinman G, Teoh K, Harriss A, 2020, Society of Occupational Medicine, The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Nurses and Midwives in the United Kingdom, July 2020


Tracie Mckelvie is a Specialist Practitioner in Occupational Health.


The SOM and The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust have produced a leaflet focused on looking after oneself, written specifically for occupational health professionals: 'Looking after your mental wellbeing: A guide for Occupational Health Practitioners'.