Ask Nurse Keith: Feeling Stagnant In My Nursing Career
By Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC
As a career coach for nurses, I’m often asked very similar questions by many nursing professionals. Our challenges may feel unique to us, but you can often find other nurses who feel just like you do. In other words, you’re not alone, nurses -- many of our struggles are universal.
A commonly asked question has to do with feeling stagnant and knowing that something is “missing” from your career. I can’t say how many times a nurse has come to me with this complaint. Feeling stuck isn’t fun, and getting unstuck can be hard work.
Here’s an email I received about this subject:
Nursing is a second career for me. I previously did scientific research in the academic world, and I now have a general MSN.
I worked bedside for 8 years in obstetrics and L & D, as well as a few years as a float in telemetry and step-down. I’m now a clinical educator in a Magnet hospital, and while all of my positions have felt satisfying in certain ways -- including my current job -- I still feel like something’s missing.
Why do I feel so dissatisfied? Why do I no longer look forward to going to work? Is something wrong with me?
Dissatisfied And I Don’t Know Why
Nurse Keith's Response
Nothing is wrong with you. Nurses become unhappy and lose their passion at work for various reasons. It can honestly be a matter of your job feeling boring and flat. It can also be your colleagues, the workplace culture, a lack of incentive to innovate, or maybe even something going on in your personal life.
There are many questions to ask yourself when you assess your nursing career for the source of your dissatisfaction. Let’s dig into three that very commonly get at the heart of the matter.
1) Does my workplace support my professional advancement?
This is an essential question. Professional stagnation can happen when you hit a wall at work and there’s no room for advancement. Some employers go out of their way to make sure their nurses feel challenged and have opportunities to learn and grow, but others just treat you like a disposable resource.
If there’s no clear room to make a lateral or vertical move within your workplace for a new job, you can directly request an opportunity to get involved in a new way. You might join or form a committee or participate in ongoing research as a way to become re-inspired about your work and your employer. You also might choose to be a mentor or preceptor to newer nurses.
Some lucky nurses work for employers who pay for certification courses, the pursuit of higher degrees, or other forms of professional development. Assess if there’s a program at your workplace that you just don’t know about.
Finally, if you feel stuck in a work environment that’s stifling your career and your professional growth as a nurse, you may need to find a new job. Being bored and stagnant doesn’t inspire hope in a nurse, so you could be faced with a decision to abandon ship and seek a better opportunity.
2) Am I experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue?
If you’re feeling like you don’t have any juice left for nursing and your mojo is gone, you may be suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue. If you’re burned out, you may experience physical effects (fatigue, headaches, insomnia, stress-based illnesses) or psycho-emotional effects (depression, anxiety). You may also feel spiritually empty and lacking in purpose or direction.
In compassion fatigue, your ability to feel empathy is radically decreased, and you may feel emotionally disconnected and distant from your patients, their families, and even your colleagues. With compassion fatigue on board, you can become harsh and critical, and be perceived as uncaring or cold.
Once you’ve realized that you’re burned out or experiencing compassion fatigue, it’s time for action:
Take extended time off if possible. If not, try to lighten your schedule as much as you can.
Pay attention to your physical health, including exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, hydration, and your intake of alcohol or other substances.
Consider changing to a job that allows you time off from the aspect of your work that’s causing the most distress. For example, if your work with addicts is getting you down, find a position working with children, babies, or the elderly. Change patient populations.
Meet with a counselor, therapist, faith leader, or coach to work through the issues that are standing in the way of your health and well-being.
3) Have my career goals and interests changed?
The reasons you went into nursing at 24 may be very different from the reasons you choose to stay in the profession at 54. Your professional interests may have changed, and you might need a new career path.
Many nurses love to learn and grow, and if you’re feeling uninspired, you could be in a situation where moving forward means some big changes in your nursing career.
If you resonated with #1 above, reaching your new career goals may not happen without leaving your current employer for new horizons. If your interests have changed and your employer prefers you to stagnate, you may need to move on.
What else can you do?
Aside from these three common issues, others include negative workplace culture, bullying and incivility, and a sense that you’re not truly valued for your skills and contributions.
You may also want to consider if there are things going on in your personal life causing you to feel “blah” at work. If you have a child who’s frequently sick, a troubled marriage, chronic pain, untreated depression, financial worries, or a needy aging parent, these situations can make your work seem even worse.
Notice what’s both inside and outside of you. Some factors can’t be easily changed, but some can (like leaving a negative, unsupportive employer).
Professional dissatisfaction doesn’t come out of nowhere -- it has a root cause (or more than one). Good luck finding the answers that move the needle for you.
All the best,
A new nursing job can really inspire your career!
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Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a Board-Certified Nurse Coach, award-winning blogger, nurse podcaster, speaker, and author. Based in Sante Fe, New Mexico, Nurse Keith’s work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications.