- Nurses are the life and soul of the healthcare profession, providing comfort, kindness, and care to patients every day
- It’s a challenging job and one that requires hard work, dedication, and a very thick skin.
- The Bureau of Labour Statistics estimates there are over 2.8 million nurses working in America right now.
- Nancy Whitt, who’s been a nurse for 45 years, and Liz Watkins, who’s been a nurse for two years, shared with Business Insider what it’s really like.
Being a nurse is not a profession for the faint-hearted.
Nurses deal with life, death, and everything in between.
According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, nurses are responsible for assisting physicians in administering patient care, providing advice and educating patients on a variety of medical conditions, and giving advice to the patient as well as their family.
And while it might be a demanding job, it seems it’s a rewarding one. A study by AMN Healthcare found 83% of nurses say they are satisfied with their choice of nursing as a career.
Business Insider spoke with two nurses, Nancy Whitt and Liz Watkins, to find out what it’s really like to be a nurse.
Whitt is a gastrointestinal nurse in California with 45 years of experience. She works in Outpatient Services (sometimes called Day Stay) and Gastrointestinal (GI) Lab and is one of five gastrointestinal nurses in her hospital providing 24/7 coverage by being on call.
Watkins is a critical care nurse with two years experience working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in Kentucky. Her patients are critically ill and in the process of recovering.
Here’s what they said being a nurse really entails:
The shifts are demanding, but schedules can vary
Most hospitals allow nurses to determine their shifts in advance. For Watkins, that’s three 12-hour day shifts a week.
“I work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., although my shifts rarely end at the time they’re supposed to. I usually leave at about 7:45 p.m. Sometimes it can be as late as 10 p.m., depending on what’s been going on and how the patients are doing,” Watkins told Business Insider.
In addition to her set shifts, Watkins is also required to work two support shifts in every eight-week period.
Whitt, who has been working for 45 years and no longer depends on the income from a full-time position, works per diem, and clocks in for six shifts a month.
Average days don’t exist when you’re dealing with patients
There’s no such thing as a routine day in a hospital. Nurses have a wide range of responsibilities and tasks that they’re continuously prioritising.
In Outpatient Services, where Whitt works, her days are dictated by the kind of patients that come through the facility and the procedures they’re there for.
“Most of the patients we see are with us for a few hours. They’re getting IV infusions, blood transfusions, minor procedures, and surgeries. It varies a lot each day,” she told Business Insider.
Over in the ICU, patients are battling with life-threatening issues, and each day brings a new set of challenges.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a typical day as we see all kinds of patients,” Watkins said. “They’re with us for different reasons each time, and the vulnerable state they’re in means they can deteriorate quickly, which keeps us on our toes.
But while the patients and situations may change, the ICU has a daily care routine that must be adhered to at all times. “We monitor each patient closely and observe a strict care schedule across the ward,” Watkins said.
Each day begins with a full handover from the night team followed by a meet-and-greet with any new patients. At 8 a.m., Watkins carries out full-body assessments on her patients and makes a note on their medical chart of everything she sees. Throughout the day patients are assessed from top to toe every four hours, and rounds are completed hourly.
As a critical care nurse, Watkins also responds to any codes that occur around the hospital. “Code calls definitely add an extra bit of excitement and adrenaline to the day,” she said.
There are different routes available to becoming a nurse — but they all start with a degree
Obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree provides the best opportunities for prospective nurses in today’s job market, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. Once you’ve got your BSN, you’ll need to obtain a licence to become a registered nurse, with requirements varying by state.
For Watkins, the route to becoming a registered nurse was different than most. “I was pre-med in college but switched to psychology,” she told Business Insider.
After graduating and working in marketing for a year, Watkins realised her passion lay in health and patient care, and she took a job as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) – something she recommends to anyone who’s considering a career in nursing.
“It’s a great introduction into the industry,” Watkins said. “Not everyone is cut out to be a nurse, and as CNA you’re basically shadowing a nurse, helping out, and getting used to life in a hospital,” she said.
Once she was certain she wanted to become a nurse, Watkins went back to school to completed a one-year accelerated nursing program. “Spending time as a CNA allowed me to test the water and make sure I was certain this is what I wanted to do before committing to go back to school,” she said.
The hiring process is always different
Like many companies, each hospital has a different hiring process. But there are certain requirements that are pretty common across the board.
“When I first started applying for jobs, all you needed was an application form, a nursing licence, and a Basic Life Support Card,” Whitt said.
“Now lots of areas, including mine, want those things as well as Advanced Life Support (ACLS) and Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) cards, and a certification in some specific fields,” she said. “You also have to pass a maths, pharmacology, and nursing test.”
And when it comes to applying for jobs, Whitt recommends laying the foundations early. “You’ve got a huge advantage if you leave a good impression at the hospital you train at,” she said. “Work hard, focus, and show you’re passionate about your job.”
There are unionized and non-unionized hospitals
Unions are a divisive subject among many workers in America. But for Whitt, working in a unionized hospital offers protection and benefits for both nurses and patients.
“I work at a for-profit corporation of hospitals. Being part of a union means we’re offered guidance and support during any disciplinary situation, as well as any problems we might have with the hospital,” she said. “They negotiate our contracts for us – things like raises, patient-staff ratio, and benefits.”
A lack of nurses means qualified nurses will almost always be able to find a job
According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, job growth for nurses is expected to increase by 15% from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than the average rate for jobs in other industries.
For Whitt, this is nothing new. “For most of my career, there’s always been a nurse shortage,” she said. “People are living longer, which means they require more care, which means hospitals need more nurses. But there just aren’t enough of us to keep up with demand.”
Watkins agrees. Most of her shifts are short-staffed, which she says can put pressure on the nurses and be dangerous for patients. But a new trend within the healthcare system has her excited for what’s in store for the future.
“The roles of general physicians and general practitioners are being put in the hands of advanced practices nurses now,” she said. “We’re more in-demand than ever.”
There are lots of different career paths open to nurses
There are over 100 different nursing specialties available, from GI and critical care to a midwife, diabetes nurse, or pain management nurse.
And there are plenty of ways to advance your career if you’re willing to work hard.
For Watkins, that means going back to school to study for her doctorate. Upon graduation, she’ll be a Doctor of Nursing and qualified to assist surgeons in the operating room to put patients to sleep.
Just because nurses work in a hospital doesn’t mean they get great healthcare benefits
The Bureau of Labour Statistics reports the median salary for a Registered Nurse is $US68,450 per year.
And while you might think being a nurse automatically means great healthcare benefits, according to Whitt, that’s not the case.
“In the early days we were covered for almost everything. We had a free plan and our deductibles were small,” she said. “Now it’s high deductibles and lots of questions about the procedures, just like it is for everyone.”
Integrity and a thick skin are useful attributes to have if you’re considering becoming a nurse
When it comes to being a nurse, there are a few key skills that spring to mind. Being kind and caring, having a drive and desire to help people, and a great bedside manner to name a few.
But according to Whitt, there’s one particular skill that’s crucial.
“If you want to succeed as a nurse, you absolutely must have integrity,”she said. “This isn’t a job where you can take shortcuts. You can’t be happy doing a mediocre job as a nurse.”
That means aspiring nurses must be able to handle stress without becoming angry and be able to think on their feet.
In high-stress situations, having a thick skin can also come in handy.
“Very few patients want to be in the hospital. It’s easy to blame the nurse who’s right there. Most of the time, people are just reacting to the circumstances they have found themself in with anger, fear, or a bit of both,” Whitt told Business Insider. “You just need to let it all wash over you and carry on with your job.”
“A good nurse can usually address patients’ fears and calm them down – and sometimes even make them laugh – all while starting their IV, doing their physical assessment, and charting,” she said.
Creating a work-life balance can be a challenge
Achieving the elusive work-life balance is something many crave and Americans are notoriously bad at.
But the physical and emotional demands of working in a hospital, coupled with long, exhausting shifts make it especially hard for nurses to separate the two.
“It’s difficult to draw the line between hospital and home. You’re never going to get into the car after a shift and just forget about everything that’s happened over the last 12 hours. It’s natural that you’d bring that stress home with you,” said Watkins. “It helps to have someone to talk about it to, but friends and family that don’t work in healthcare don’t always understand what you’ve been through.”
Whitt said the adrenaline rush of a day at the hospital also makes it hard to switch off when you’re at home.
“Now that I’m working so much less (just six days a month), I realise I have an adrenaline level at work that I don’t have when I’m at home,” she said. “The less frequently I’m at work and experiencing that rush and those moments when my heart is pounding, the more noticeable it becomes.”
Whitt said that you can’t come home from a shift and get straight into bed when you’re a nurse.”It takes a while to calm down and get in the right headspace for being at home,” she said.
Despite dealing with death frequently, it never gets easier
Death happens. Especially in a hospital. But for nurses, doctors, and all healthcare professionals, learning to let go and move on is crucial.
“Every scenario and every patient is different, so each death is always different,” Watkins said. “But you never really become immune to it.”
She said she deals with it by pushing her emotions aside and thinking with her head instead of her heart.
“Every time we lose a patient, it’s upsetting. It’s always going to painful, especially when you’ve got a bond with the patient,” Watkins said. “But we don’t have time to get caught up in our emotions because the next patient is waiting. You have to figure out a way to process what’s happened that’s not going to impact your other patients.”
You can buy scrubs online
If you’ve ever watched “Grey’s Anatomy” and thought you’d like your very own pair of scrubs, Whitt has some good news for you.
“A lot of hospitals colour code their employees. It makes it easy to differentiate between specialties and departments. Generally speaking, registered nurses usually wear blue scrubs and we provide our own. I order mine online or buy them from a uniform store,” she said. “There’s even a line of “Grey’s Anatomy” scrubs you can buy. Although I don’t know anyone who has a pair.”
Nurses are almost always lacking in time
When it comes to the biggest misconception about nurses, Whitt says most people don’t realise just how pressed for time they are.
“It’s not that we’re not interested in our patients and their stories – we are. But we only have a certain amount of time to get things done, so we have to try to steer conversations back to the task at hand so we can get the information we need to get the job done,” she said.
The constant challenges make nursing one of the best jobs and one of the worst
It’s not often that the thing you love the most about a job is also the thing you’d say is the worst part about it.
But for both Whitt and Watkins, the challenge of a new day is both a blessing and a curse.
“Every day is different,” Whitt said. “You never know what kind of day you’re going to have, who you’re going to meet, or what kind of challenges you’ll face.”
She said this can can be exhilarating or it can be exhausting. “You always have to be alert. You cannot make a mistake,” she said. “It’s hard work and mentally draining. But it’s also one of the greatest things about the job.”
The camaraderie among the nurses and other healthcare professionals make tough days easier, and good days even greater.
Watkins enjoys the sense of teamwork that’s often displayed on the ICU.
“When we’re in life-or-death situations, and a patient is coding or deteriorating fast and we don’t know why, we’ll all come together to work it out,” Watkins said. “We’ll brainstorm and try to understand what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what we can do to stop it.”
What it’s really like to be nurse, summed up:
Overall, Watkins said her job is challenging but the rewards far outweigh the negatives.
And for Whitt, the opportunity to make a positive impact makes it all worth it.
“I have a great job where I work inside, I make a good salary, and I get to make people’s lives a little better,” she said, “For the most part, I’m treated with respect, and I work with a great group of people.”
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