Breaking the Cycle of Exhaustion

Latoya L. Stewart, MSN, RN


December 22, 2021

A wise person once said, "Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." To that I say, "Yeah, right."

Celebrities live what appears to be the perfect life with what seems like limitless money at their disposal, and even they have days where life just smacks them in the face. Without a doubt, the average person sometimes thinks about flipping over their desk and running free out the nearest exit while sitting through a Zoom or Webex meeting. Yes, you can love your job. And yes, you can be exhausted from it. 

It seems that as healthcare workers, we develop this complex of "being needed." So much so that we come in on our day off and work countless hours of overtime because the unit is understaffed. We then go through the crash-and-burn phase in which we are just so tired on our scheduled day, and we end up calling out. Which then continues the cycle of the unit being understaffed. Now more than ever, nurses are finding themselves in a dynamic love/hate relationship with their jobs. I can just imagine the literature that will be coming out years from now on the shift COVID has caused on healthcare. 

Unfortunately, this pattern of being overworked and understaffed transcends the bedside and plagues leadership just as much. Now before your eyes start to roll, hear me out. Leadership in most hospitals is a 24-hour role in which the expectation is that you will be contacted at any time with an issue or concern. Imagine going to bed around 11 PM, only to be awoken at 1 AM due to a deficit in staffing from another department that is having an impact on the overall throughput in the hospital. Only to get back to bed and have the phone ring 2 hours later because the IT network went down and the nurses are unable to chart. Then keep in mind that most leaders report to work at 7 AM to be present for shift change and daily huddles.

I've often heard leaders lament and say, "I should have stayed bedside," because the lure of "no holidays or weekends" comes with great responsibilities that can seem overwhelming at times. 

With the great nursing migration, leaders are tasked to take on additional roles that normally would be split among multiple staff members. Now instead of being the manager of one department, you are covering two or three. When you thought you had your unit running like a well-oiled machine, you are now asked to take on another unit with employees you barely know, who have issues that make your original unit look like angels. 

As my roles changed, I found myself seeking a mentor. I searched for a nursing guru that understood the juggle of being a full-time professional while raising a family. This process appears more daunting than I initially expected. In my journey of finding a mentor, I met several leaders with different styles and approaches. I flinched when I heard one mention that she told her staff to call her anytime even when she's on vacation. I sat in her office and imagined myself frolicking on the beach of a tropical island with a flavorful libation only to have my work phone ring to discuss an issue while I'm at least 1000 miles away. The idea alone makes me want to run for the hills. It would be nice if they had something like for finding a mentor, because I'm not finding much luck in the leadership career pool. 

While I am still searching for a mentor, my thought process on leadership is to empower your employees so that they feel confident enough to make the right decisions whether you are there or not. I am completely aware that this sounds easier said than done. In process of growth and development there will be growing pains as you and your staff become accustomed to each other. I still find myself struggling with work-life balance, and some days I think it's a laughable myth. I find myself checking emails and answering texts even on my days off while fighting that feeling of always being behind.

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but I do plan on moving forward with the mindset that I can't always have a full plate or I may be the one flipping the table over. 

As healthcare goes through this unprecedented change, I ask the remaining leaders to hang in there. Times are no doubt crazy, but I'm hopeful for 2022. Of all the things 2021 has taught me, the main one is to take time off when needed.

Schedule it, plan for it, and — most importantly — take it. We cannot continue to provide care for others while our physical and mental health decline. Though I haven't found a mentor yet, one thing I've taken away from several seasoned nurses is that the hospital will be there whether you're there or not, so take the time to enjoy your family and look after your health.

At this moment, the idea of work-life balance seems like chasing the fountain of youth. My goal for 2022 is to learn to set realistic goals, disconnect from time to time, and be present when I'm with my family. After all, I'll need them to sneak me libations when I'm in the nursing home. 

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About Latoya L. Stewart
Latoya Stewart is Jamaica-born and New Jersey–raised, this millennial mom of two is navigating her way through middle management while quieting her middle-child syndrome. A graduate of UMDNJ and Rutgers University, she received her bachelor's in journalism, history, and nursing as well as her master's of science in nursing. Like most nurses, she believes she has a heart of gold and the mouth of a drunken sailor. Follow her on Instagram: @mindoftoya


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