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Some Things are More Important than Stress by Mary Moeller

It is no secret that the nursing aide job is difficult. It is emotionally and physically draining, and often coupled with long hours and low pay. For the past two years, I have worked with nursing aides in long-term health care settings. During this time, I heard about the biggest stressors in their work and home lives and learned why they chose to continue doing a job that has led so many to be injured or burnt out.

From focus groups and surveys, a team of researchers (myself included) learned that some of the most stressful parts of the nursing aide job are organizational. We heard about a lack of communication between shifts and between management and aides. We learned that mandatory overtime happened frequently. We learned that physical injuries, especially back injuries, were common and happened when there were not enough available staff to help lift a patient. We learned about the everyday decisions nursing aides must make, choosing to prioritize one task over another (though both are important) in order to help patients as best they can. Some of the nursing aides we interviewed and worked with have been in the field for decades. We asked them why they stayed, because surely if it was just about the money there were other career options. They all had the same answer: they loved their patients.

We took this answer to heart. Our goal for working with nursing aides was to develop an intervention that would help them cope more effectively with all of the stressors they experience, and one of the main focuses of the intervention is clarifying values. Steven Hayes, the psychologist who developed the theory behind our intervention, suggests that if the goal of life is to feel fulfilled, then it is helpful to move towards one’s values rather than away from one’s stressors. Values, according to Hayes, represent the way we want to live our lives and how we want people to see us. They are not goals to be achieved, they are guidelines that move us in a desired direction. The nursing aides who had been in the field for decades were still doing their jobs because their value of caring for their patients made all of the stress and fatigue worth it. They were willing to accept that they would be faced with challenges and burnout because they believed it was more important to help their patients than to avoid stress. 

In order to find what you value, think about how you want to be remembered. Do you want others to view you as a kind person? Do you want to be remembered as someone who did his or her best for every patient? As a good parent or spouse? As a loving family member? This is one of your values. Often, it can be easy to live our lives so that we are avoiding stress rather than moving toward our values. For example, I have a value of being a good granddaughter, but I often neglect to call my grandmother. Then I feel guilty about not calling her and put it off even longer to avoid the guilt. As you can probably imagine, this makes me feel guiltier, and the cycle continues until I can acknowledge and accept the guilt. This helps me to call her in the presence of guilt -- not despite it or to try to lessen it. I may still feel guilty when I call or even after, but I value being a good granddaughter and calling her, so I follow the value even when it is hard. Sometimes, especially when it is hard.

Think about a way in which you aren’t living up to one of your values, an area where your energy is going toward fighting or avoiding stress rather than living the life you desire. Now, think of one small thing you can do in the next week to move toward your value. It might be difficult, but commit to doing it. It could be something that seems small, but is a concrete step towards your values. Maybe it’s making a phone call, sending a message, going for a walk, or taking a small break to spend time with someone you love. Living the life you want will not always be easy; only you can decide if it is worth it. You may be surprised at the life you can have if you start moving toward your values rather than moving away from stress. For me, it’s worth it. I’m going to go call my grandma.

For more information about the researchers, the project, or different ways that nurses and nursing aides can cope with stress, please visit this link: