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Nurses Beat Burnout with Exercise, Arts

  • Faiza Elmasry

When it’s time for a brief stretching break, clinical nurse manager Jan Powers joins her staff for gentle exercises in the hallway at Georgetown University Hospital's Lombardi Cancer Center.

“It’s absolutely essential," Powers said. "It kind of allows you to not think about it for five minutes. You’re refreshed afterwards. You come back with a whole fresh outlook and you work much more, harder and longer.”

Nurses often confront the limits of care, especially with terminally ill patients. When a patient dies, nurses may feel helpless and question how they are benefiting others. Many hospitals and medical institutions offer programs to help staff members cope with emotional fatigue and manage stress. At Georgetown University Hospital's Lombardi Cancer Center, along with exercise, the nurses are also encouraged to get involved in the arts.

“We painted a mural together," Powers said. "We had an artist come in and teach us how to paint. We have that in our patient library. We’ve done all kinds of things; clay work, bead work. It sounds silly, like we’re playing, but a lot of emotions come out, a lot of conversations happen when your hands are busy with something else.”

The stretching and painting are part of Lombardi’s Arts and Humanities program, which began 14 years ago. Nancy Morgan is its director.

“We brought dancers, musicians," she says. "We brought in visual artists, painters and I teach writing. And I teach writing. Research shows that if you put your thoughts and feelings on paper, that a lot of physiological changes happen like reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure, better sleep quality.”

Tricia Smyth, who took part in the painting session, says it brightens her mood.

“They are very flexible about letting us come in and out whenever," she said. "So I go paint a few strokes, if a patient calls and needs me, I go see the patient and come back.”

Her colleague, Lizzie Hagood, also joins in the painting sessions.

“Any nursing job can be very stressful," Hagood said. "We work with very sick people who are coming with acute issues related to their cancer. There are definitely those days where you can’t stop thinking about that patient you spent the last three days with [and] saw them suffering. You get close to their families. You can’t help it.”

Bonding with families can add to the stress nurses deal with.

“Many times we get parents who are absolutely terrified and devastated," Powers said. "That comes out in different ways. Sometimes the anger is what comes out. That’s very hard to take when it’s coming at you. They are not angry at you, they are angry at the situation, but it’s very hard to hear those kinds of things.”

Nurse Thomas Yung, 35, understands how people feel in such situations and knows it’s part of his job.

“It’s really a challenging job to be able to help people, to support them during such difficult time,” Yung said.

To relax during his break, Yung is trying something new: he's sewing.

“What I like about that is that it allows me to do something different, something new that I’ve never experienced," he said. "I’ve never sewn before. [It’s] like an opportunity to be creative.”

Lauren Kingsland, the fabric artist who teaches sewing, says participants don’t have to be good. "It’s not about mastering, it’s about doing," she said.

It’s also therapeutic.

“They get out of their head, their stress, by having to touch the fabric, having to enjoy the feel of it, the physical activity of sewing," she said. "And I say the creation of something beautiful feeds your soul.”

Nancy Morgan says the program will continue to evolve.

“We're expanded from just the Cancer Center to the whole hospital," she said. "I would like to find ways, to have things in the evening because nurses are here around the clock, finding new ways to reach all of the staff with new activities.”

And because - in the end - it’s the patients who benefit, Morgan would like to see every hospital introduce similar programs to help their nurses reduce stress and come back stronger.