Can you let things roll off your shoulders? Are you the tough, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, stand-your-ground type? Do you show up to work no matter what? Has no one ever seen you cry at work?
Are these things resilience?
We nurses openly divulge the issues that make us leave the bedside, even amid a vast shortage of nurses. Professional organizations report these issues, and academic, and research institutes aggregate data for a convenient viewing experience. Yet, it seems those in leadership positions are either not viewing the literature or just don’t care.
One vacuous solution for our not-so-subtle broadcast about causes of turnover, increasing health care professional suicides, post-traumatic stress, early retirement, workplace violence and more seems to all be nicely packaged into our resiliency. Resilience is indeed necessary for the health of nurses, but maybe it’s time to re-evaluate what resilience really is when tone-deaf organizational initiatives are built with a paucity of useful tools in the workplace.
Resilience is one’s ability to recover quickly after experiencing tension. If we’re resilient, it means that we’ve rebounded to a near-normal state and can be functional. Dare I say we are even conditioned with positive reinforcement to be prideful in the ability to knowingly, repeatedly subject ourselves to tensions in the workplace. Because of those consistent and persistent tensions, our bounce-back will never quite be 100 percent. What people in leadership positions want from us is not true resilience — they just want us to come back to work. Our coming back helps to uphold a facade of nursing resilience.
The health and condition of the elements that keep us together are what determine how closely we can bounce back to 100 percent. Are leaders responsible for our resilience? Resilience is affected by: 1. decisions we have agency over and 2. decisions that are not in our control.
Self-care, when we are not at work, is in our control. We can meditate, do yoga, woodwork, paint, jazzercise, train for cage fighting, or take naps. When we’re not at work, we have more agency in issues that affect us. Despite holding the power to be instruments of our own self-care, sometimes we can’t do any of these things because we’re too physically, mentally or emotionally exhausted as a direct result of our job. Slowly, our willpower is whittled away at work and home because of work-related tensions.
Self-care when we are at work, where perhaps it matters most in this context, is much less in our control. Nurses feel more powerless when it’s a challenge to even get basic necessities — like breaks. We have less agency when decisions that directly impact us leave us completely out of the equation. Some variables we feel powerless to are: staffing allowances, schedules, staffing ratios, inaccessible leaders, uninformed boardroom decisions, lack of union representation, customer satisfaction model, transparent salary reporting, and corporate greed. We, a very consequential variable of the equation, are stripped of power. It’s no wonder why health care organizations can’t find balance.
And it’s no wonder we lose resiliency. This power differential is disproportionate and sucks our willpower. Leadership controls much of what affects our resiliency, which means they hold much responsibility for building it. Yet, nurses are given the burden of responsibility to be resilient and do it on our own time.
Resiliency training does offer some effective tools and suggestions. What it doesn’t do is give us resiliency solutions like breaks or staffing ratios.
Leadership could offer these solutions, but by transferring responsibility to us, resiliency training propagates our use of the “mask of resiliency.” This mask helps us return to work, makes us appear resilient to the outsider, and perhaps it even tricks us into believing we’re resilient, rather than recognizing the potential toxic undertones of this well-intentioned ideology. Sometimes we brag about our ability to shrug things off, coach others to toughen up or start dismissing our peers because they knew what they signed up for. We start victim-blaming our colleagues and numbing our own emotions.
Resilience should not be conflated with toughness. We shield ourselves with toughness, numbness, and apathy. When these protective mechanisms set in, we might show up to work — but we may also be cruel to our colleagues, tear down the less powerful, bully each other, become territorial and take pride in our detachment. Resilience is not just about the ability to bounce back to go to work.
True resilience is more about finding and using your own self-power in meaningful ways to be present in all of life despite the tensions we experience. Self-power that comes with true resilience is sometimes incompatible with the silence and compliance expected of us in the workplace.
Nurses who come back are not necessarily resilient. And just because they come back does not mean that a perfunctory resiliency initiative is effective. Instead, nurses who have been disempowered to speak out about inequities may be obedient. Maybe they lack alternative employment, so you see conformity. Perhaps they’d rather acquiesce to pressures rather than be labeled as non-compliant or a pot-stirrer. Praised for being obedient, conforming, and compliant, they keep showing up to work —unfulfilled, disempowered, silenced.
I don’t believe in living a victimhood of our flawed health care system. If you desire true resilience, then re-evaluate how you look at it for yourself and those you lead. Are your everyday words, actions, and behaviors — as a nurse and a leader — toward yourself and others promoting true resiliency or propagating a feedback loop of corporate gaslighting?
Seek awareness of why you go to work, how you replenish the health and condition of the elements that keep you together, and how you can build true resilience in yourself and others. Find your self-power. Advocate for yourself and others. Expose inequities. Build others up. It’s OK to change course. Evaluate your own leadership. Organic change will happen if you invest meaningfully in others. Stop victim-blaming others for their lack of resiliency. Fix systems. Be accountable. Check your ego. Define what true resilience means for you.
Sarah E. Jorgenson is a nurse.
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