• Nurse life is hard, and we’re always trying to figure out a better way to have it all and be it all.
  • Work-life balance was tough before the pandemic. Now, it’s almost laughable.
  • But COVID-19 may be the paradigm shift we need to kill the idea of work-life balance and spark new, more realistic expectations.
  • Instead of asking, ‘Is work-life balance possible?’ we should be asking ourselves, ‘How can we cope?” There’s no easy solution—but there are ways to strengthen our resilience.

An erratic work environment. Entire shifts with no time to pee, let alone eat a proper meal. Patients coding, forced doubles and the ongoing struggle to get support from administrators. Then we go home and try to juggle our family responsibilities, which was never easy, but now feels nearly impossible with the constant fear of spreading COVID-19 to our loved ones. Nurses make the top 10 list of professions most likely to divorce for a reason. And it’s sad but not surprising that we experience depression at double the average rate.

This. Life. Is. Hard.

But in spite of the challenges, we love our jobs

Nursing is a profession that’s riddled with contradictions. The job is exhausting, but also invigorating. We’re tough as nails, but also quick to comfort. We love our work, except of course when we hate it.

And the stats support this storyline. We experience astoundingly high rates of job satisfaction – 83 percent! – but more than half of us worry that our career is bad for our health. Sixty-six percent of us would encourage others to become nurses, yet 35 percent hope we’ll be in another job within the year.

So why do any of us stay in a job that’s this hard, hectic and harmful to our health? One reason: passion. We’ve dedicated our lives to caring for others. We know that our caring comes at a cost, and still, we’re always trying to figure out a better way to have it all and be it all. A great nurse, a perfect partner, a productive parent, a doting child or supportive sibling. It’s exhausting, and COVID-19 just added a whole other layer.

Nursing in the time of COVID-19

The pandemic has put a spotlight on nurses, and while it is nice to finally be really recognized for the dedication and commitment it takes to do this job, praise and platitudes only go so far, especially when the support seems to stop at social media. One moment the public is calling us heroes. The next they’re verbally abusing us in grocery stores, physically attacking us in the streets, and shunning our kids for fear of possible infection.

At work, we’re facing equipment shortages, patient surges, this unprecedented virus, and, at times, a noticeable lack of support from hospital leaders. As Jackie O’Halloran, a cardiac nurse unexpectedly assigned to a makeshift COVID-19 ICU, recounts in an essay for STAT, some physicians and administrators are simply standing by while nurses whisper words of encouragement to dying patients and leave their shifts in tears.

She describes witnessing a physician—under strict orders to minimize his own exposure to the virus—posting TikTok videos while the nurses around him cried. A hospital leader was described as going floor to floor with “an important delivery” of makeup-removing wipes. “She told us to use the wipes to clean our faces before putting on our N95 masks so we could reuse the masks later, then moved on … without asking how our staff was doing or if we needed anything.” We all read the news, and we know that this behavior isn’t just an unfortunate exception. It’s not all this extreme, but there’s definitely a universal feeling that support for nurses is insufficient.

Debunking the myth of work-life balance

Work-life balance was already elusive for nurses before the pandemic – now for all the reasons above, many of us feel like it’s so unrealistic that it’s downright laughable. But here’s a thought: what if COVID-19 actually creates the paradigm shift we need to kill the conversation about work-life balance and spark new, more realistic expectations? No one’s achieving balance during the pandemic. And that’s actually the point.

Nurse-life expert Adele Webb challenges the very premise of work-life balance: “People think they need it. But, do they? Can you ever have it? Or are people chronically dissatisfied because it’s like a unicorn? They’re chasing something that doesn’t exist.”

We agree. So, as a starting point, we suggest reframing the question from “How can we achieve work-life balance?” to something more useful: “How can we cope?” And let’s ask a couple other questions. How can we protect ourselves in the midst of extreme, high-stress circumstances? How can we preserve a sense of self while witnessing and experiencing so much suffering?

Working toward resiliency

There’s certainly no solution to the challenges of nurse life that will fit neatly into one article. But it’s still worth taking the time to openly acknowledge what we’re facing, and also to start a conversation with this community about coping and building resiliency. The good news is that resiliency is a skill that can be developed over time with access to the right tools, information and organizational supports. To the degree that we can connect you to these resources, we’ll do it—in fact, today we want to recommend an online resilience workshop facilitated by one of our very own SHIFT Talkers, Michelle Schuster.

Let us know what you think—not just about the workshop, but about how this community can continue to help.