by Margie Gale, MSN, RN, CEAP
Nurse Wellness Specialist and Clinical Counselor, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

As someone on the front line of patient care, I know one thing to be absolutely true: left unchecked, the stress nurses face on a daily basis in providing care for others can severely impair their mental and physical well-being.

Like most large companies, my employer, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), has offered an employee assistance program (EAP) for employees who need help managing personal issues that may affect their performance at work. However, use of the program by the nursing staff was not very high. Recognizing the unique job stresses faced by nurses, roughly 15 years ago, leadership decided to develop a component of the EAP specifically geared for nurses called the Nurse Wellness Program.

This program provides our nursing staff with access to seven professionals ranging from a clinical psychologist, licensed professional counselors and clinical social workers to myself, a master’s-prepared psychiatric nurse who serves the role of nurse wellness specialist. The program offers services ranging from counseling, workplace outreach and promotion of wellness activities to address managing stress, emotional health, relationships, family, financial, legal, drug or alcohol issues and other personal concerns. Participation among nurses has substantially increased.

Here are some helpful tips on how your organization can structure a successful nurse wellness program in your facility:

1. Implement an engaging infrastructure

The longevity and success of our program can be attributed to the infrastructure that supports this work. It is led by a highly engaged Nurse Wellness Committee, which serves as the program’s advisory council. The council is made up of nurses and they gather input from more than 200 units and clinics across the Vanderbilt health system to determine needs specific to nurses and how best to address them.

2. Offer a variety of benefits

The Nurse Wellness Program provides assessments, brief solution-focused counseling, performance coaching and referrals to community resources when needed. It also provides services to the organization that include departmental skill development workshops, critical incident stress response and leadership consultation. 

3. Identify and address front line needs

The Nurse Wellness Committee identifies potential problems by gathering staff input, setting realistic goals for the work, identifying partners across the enterprise to include in the work, and then starts small by piloting interventions.

One such example was the seven-minute yoga breaks that we rolled out in more than 40 units. The goal was to provide staff with self-care techniques to help manage compassion fatigue that we felt was a growing problem with our nurses.  We also offer a quarterly “Burnout/ Compassion Fatigue in the Workplace” half- day workshop with continuing education credit that teaches additional techniques to help staff combat the issue.

Another great example is our efforts around addressing lateral violence in nursing. I was the first nurse nationally to undergo Green Dot Bystander Trainer education with psychologist Dr. Dorothy Edwards, and Vanderbilt was the first one to use this prevention training with nurses. We have since trained more than 100 nurses. Additionally, Vanderbilt has an active Workplace Violence Prevention in Nursing Task Force, which is part of the health system’s safety committee structure. The work of that committee, combined with the Tennessee Nurses Association and a responsive legislative session, led to state law being changed in 2013 to increase the penalties for assault against all health care workers.

4. Provide an open forum for staff

Nurses work extremely hard every shift, and the toll to their physical and emotional well-being is one that requires a constant barometer. Vanderbilt offers a monthly program for physicians, nurses and all clinicians called “Bedside Matters,” where staff talk about various concerns – emotional, ethical or social – around caring for patients and their families. It allows staff to talk about their emotions and get support from their peers who can relate and provide support in a caring manner.

What the last 15 years of the Nurse Wellness Initiative at Vanderbilt has taught us is that that we still have much to do in the support of our nursing staff. However, with the active engagement of our nurses, committee structure and nursing leadership support, we have laid the foundation for delivering an important and meaningful program for our nurses. Hopefully, by sharing our program at Vanderbilt, more hospitals will consider implementing similar support programs for their nurses.

About the author. Gale is a master’s-prepared psychiatric nurse with more than 40 years of nursing experience. As the nurse wellness specialist for the VUMC Nurse Wellness Program, she champions the well-being and emotional support for more than 6,000 nurses. She provides one-on-one assessment and grief counseling and referral, workplace consultations for leadership, crisis debriefing and support as well as educational talks and workshops on workplace violence prevention, including lateral violence and domestic violence.

Published: May 24, 2017