Updated: Nov 1, 2021
I am a sensitive, introverted person who has experienced chronic anxiety since I was a young child. I qualified as a nurse in 2009 and as a midwife in 2012. By the laws of nature, I probably should have become a librarian or an archivist on a remote island somewhere (maybe one day!) but learning to interact with people in an environment as dynamic as the NHS opened up my world and taught me lessons other professions couldn’t have. It hasn’t always been the most obvious or easiest path, but I treasure it as mine.
Anxiety is a constant I have learned to live with. I’m happy to have reached a point in my life where not only does it feel more manageable, but I’m ready to be totally open and honest about it. I don’t feel that it makes me weaker than others – in fact, I feel prouder of my achievements given how much harder it has sometimes felt to succeed. I have also learned to consider my sensitivity as a strength. I believe we need all types of personalities working within healthcare, because we all bring different strengths, and I understand myself so much better for learning about introversion. It took many years to reframe my perception of myself in this way.
I found moments in my journey as a healthcare professional unsurprisingly rocky. Whether it was being newly qualified and having too many patients to look after on a night shift, hunting all over the hospital for scarce supplies, long hours without breaks or coping with challenging patients, families, or colleagues, it didn’t take long for me to realise that my chosen field was no scenic route. But I survived.
It is known that in any cohort of student nurses or midwives, a certain number will fall away along the journey, in what is somewhat distantly referred to as the ‘attrition rate.’
Some students do qualify, start in their first jobs, even work a shift. Maybe two. Others perhaps complete their first few weeks in post, before vanishing, never to be heard from on the unit again. In the blur that is any day in the revolving wheel of the NHS, I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes faces too can quickly become a blur. This high turnover of staff speaks to more than just a change of heart – it leaves behind traces of shattered dreams.
Who knows what toll the training took on these colleagues? Who knows what unspoken burdens they might have taken away with them? What if they even blamed themselves for events beyond their control?
As a student, I heard the heartbreaking story of newly qualified midwife Theresa Naish. Theresa took her own life in 2009, after mistakenly believing she was responsible for the death of a baby. There are many other devastating stories of traumatized nurses and midwives harming themselves, or considering doing so.
It is far from uncommon to hear a colleague, especially a more junior one, whisper how they don’t want to be at work anymore. They doubt themselves and feel that they’re underperforming, or simply feel overwhelmed by pressure and stress. The exhaustion of back to back 12.5 hour shifts with no breaks leaves them feeling that they’re failing their families and friends, as well. We care so much, but sometimes we have barely any care left in us to give.
Here are a few things I wish I’d known as a newly qualified nurse/midwife:
You are not alone in these complicated, exhausted feelings.
It is normal to have doubts and fears.
It is normal to need a break in a long shift. Needing a break does not make you weak (plus we don’t get paid for that hour!)
Everyone learns at a different pace. You will get there in your own way, in your own time.
There are different personality types in any workplace and extroverted types are not superior to quieter ones. We can all work together and we all have different strengths.
It is normal to feel drained by caring. It doesn’t mean you care any less.
Suffering with poor mental health, as a result of work pressures or otherwise, does not make you weak.
It is so important that we support each other, and those finding their feet in an often-overwhelmed service. Because the greatest asset the NHS has is its amazing staff. In every job I’ve had within the service, I’ve had the best time working with groups of people who live and work from the heart. And I will never forget the nurses who looked after me when I was sick as a child, or the nurses who looked after my family members.
This is why I am part of Nurse Lifeline. For the love of our profession, our patients, our colleagues, and ourselves. Vulnerability is no shame, and neither is speaking up about our mental health. It is time to acknowledge the challenges, the neurodiversity in our workplaces and the potential traumas inherent in our work.