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The Power of Self-Reflection on Nurse Well-Being

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Build your resilience and stay motivated in nursing with one simple habit.

Who hasn’t spent a few hours after a grueling shift replaying the whole thing in your head? There’s something backwards about the human tendency to dwell on the negative while not giving the positive a second thought. Not only is it unhelpful and terribly one-sided, it’s also not providing any benefits to your well-being or your ability to stay motivated as a nurse.

The better approach? Take the good with the bad, and offset those big, heavy observations about what went wrong with observations of what went right. At Keener, we call this shift reflection, and we feel strongly that it’s one of the keys to building resilience and helping nurses thrive in their careers. But don’t take our word for it. We asked Susan Bauer-Wu, a registered nurse, president of the Mind & Life Institute and a Keener advisor, to explain why this easiest of “contemplative practices” works and how nurses can make it a habit.

She actually started our conversation with a confession — that she wished she had had this powerful tool in her toolbox when she was a nurse. “I know it would have been helpful,” she said. “Over time I’ve learned that reflection after a full and intense workday can help me make sense of things, remind me of what I accomplished, and reinforce that I’m making difference.”

Let’s break that down.

Shift reflection can help you make sense of things.

Every shift has its challenges. Attending providers may snap at you. Patients might pass away on your watch. A colleague may challenge you. And when these types of things happen, it’s best to process them sooner rather than later. “Shift reflection lets you mentally synthesize what happened during the work shift, so you can more freely let go and relax when you’re home,” Bauer-Wu said. “It also helps you be more mindful and gain insights into how you felt and responded to what happened during the shift. That way, you can learn to turn off your autopilot and instead establish — and reinforce — positive, skillful habits and ways of responding to work challenges.”

Shift reflections remind you of what you accomplished.

A lot happens in a 12-hour shift. Work back-to-back shifts, and good luck remembering anything from those first few hours. Enter shift reflection, which Bauer-Wu says can help you recall, reaffirm and consider all the things you accomplished or learned. “This can be big life-saving kinds of things or simpler ways of bringing a smile to a patient, family member or colleague through something you said or did.”

Self-reflection can reinforce that you’re making a difference.

A tough shift, especially those unhelpful ruminations that follow it, can be enough to make you want to turn in your badge and throw away your scrubs. But that “I can’t do this” feeling subsides when you remember what a difference you’re making. Taking time to reflect helps “connect nurses to their professional calling and can bring meaning and fulfillment to their work and lives,” Bauer-Wu said. And that’s a good thing, because having more meaning and fulfillment helps to balance the stressful aspects of working as a nurse.

How to win at self-reflection

Now that we’ve established why self-reflection is so important, let’s talk logistics. That’s easy — find what works for you.

You could try the Keener shift reflection tool that’s included in our new app. You could be like Bauer-Wu and mull it over on your commute home. “I’ve found it helpful to do such reflection on my way home from work,” she said. “It’s a transitional buffer between work time and home life, so when we get home we can be more fully present for our family and personal responsibilities.” Or, you could scribble down your thoughts in a journal. “Writing can help us gain perspective and feel like a greater release than simply mental reflection,” she said. Plus, once you write it down, it may be easier to let it go.

No matter what method you choose, reserve plenty of time reflecting on what went well. Bauer-Wu recommends trying to identify three specific experiences during the shift that brought you a sense of accomplishment, joy or satisfaction.

So, there you have it. Not only does shift reflection reinforce good habits, it can also help to cultivate positive emotions that can counter or prevent burnout. “The more we can notice and reflect on rewarding experiences during the workday, the more affirmed and empowered and better we’ll feel,” Bauer-Wu explained.

And when we feel better, that has a ripple effect to everyone around us — our patients, families, colleagues and friends. That’s a win-win-win-win-win.

Reviewed by: Susan Bauer-Wu, PhD, RN, President Mind and Life Institute
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