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Helping Stressed Out Nurses Relax

Kay Taylor

In their first three years of employment, a recent study found half of all nurses leaving their jobs – often because they’re burned out.  It’s a difficult job, and hospitals are searching for ways to make the work less stressful. At the University of Virginia, three nurses came up with a way to help their colleagues relax, even for a few minutes during their busy days.

TV shows like ER and Gray’s Anatomy portray medicine as a noble and exciting field for people who can handle the pressure and pace, but the truth is that the long hours dealing with unhappy patients and their families and sometimes disagreeable colleagues can take a toll.  Graduate student and emergency department nurse Jane Muir says all over the country, nurses are calling it quits. 

“There is much discussion on the national level regarding how to address nurse burnout and turnover," she explains. "Nurses are the largest healthcare professional group in the U.S. and there’s a huge need to identify strategies that work in health systems.” 

So she sat down with two other nurses at the University of Virginia and came up with a simple but potentially powerful tool – a box filled with virtual reality goggles, machines that generate soothing sounds and other sources of relaxation, available through a cell phone.

“The QR code will take a nurse to a website where they can pick a poem that will be read to them, calming sounds," Muir says.  "They can watch a YouTube video with VR goggles that take them into an immersive experience where they’re in a forest or at a beach.”

Of course a nurse would have to find a quiet spot and take a few minutes to appreciate these things, and some days that’s just not possible, so the box also contains laminated cards with exercises in mindfulness – things nurses can do in the course of everyday activities.  Jeanell Webb-Jones, for example, spends a fair amount of time cleaning equipment.

“Whatever the stressor was, as you’re wiping away, cleaning your table, your instruments, whatever; you can just throw it away in the trash can," Webb-Jones says.  "I do that almost every day. “

And nurse Nancy Farish says handwashing can also offer an opportunity to reflect and relax.

“You can feel the water on your hands -- hot, cold, the wetness of it.  You can listen to the sound of it going down the drain.  You can stop and think for a minute – where am I, how am I, checking in with yourself," she explains.  "And if it’s not a helpful moment, take that moment and allow it to go down the drain.”

They call the program Room to Reflect, and they’ve just finished a three month pilot to see how fellow nurses liked the box.  Muir said it got off to a slow start, perhaps because nurses didn’t want to admit they needed a break.

“I think people perceive working in healthcare as wearing a badge of honor – that it’s very challenging, and you should just expect it to be taxing, and I think we’re striving to shift that norm and make addressing your stressors at work a priority," Muir says.

To keep experienced nurses on the job, Nancy Farish adds, the professional culture must change.

“You know time and time again we’ve said it’s okay to not be okay," she explains.  And this is a step in the right direction for us to be able to take some time for ourselves, and I think that’s really where a lot of this work needs to be done in our culture of nursing where caring for others comes first.”

So they’re expanding the program – adding more boxes, and Webb-Jones says they’re spreading the word during daily huddles in the hospital.

“We share these conversations with our colleagues on these other units, hoping that they will spread this information to their colleagues – that everyone will start to open up more and just open up and share their stories and connect with each other,” she adds.

And they plan to write about their multi-media tool boxes – hoping to help nurses nationwide.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief