Resilience is the “mask” that nurses are forced to wear because of workplace pressures and demands, members of the profession have warned during a discussion at the Royal College of Nursing congress this week.
In a discussion about resilience at the conference, nurses highlighted that more must be done to tackle the problems that are requiring them to be resilient in the first place.
“Let’s campaign to change the toxic, unsafe system we work in before it kills us”
Mark Boothroyd, from the Inner South East London RCN branch, told delegates to reject the resilience agenda.
Speaking at congress on Wednesday, he said: “Instead, let’s campaign to change the toxic, unsafe system we work in before it kills us.”
The discussion was focused around whether resilience was always a positive attribute and if it was one to be aspired to in the modern healthcare workforce.
Speaking to delegates, Mr Boothroyd said: “I really hate the way the word resilience is used. I think it’s used in a victim blaming manner, shifting the focus on nurse burnout from the system we work in, to the individual nurse and their capabilities.”
“I wonder if resilience is a good thing, when it just makes people put up and shut up”
He assured members that every nurse who completes their training is resilient and noted the traumatic experiences that staff go through during their careers.
“We are tough but not invincible,” he said. “We cannot continue to work in understaffed units, working under impossible amounts of pressure, with bullying managers- without suffering ill-effects.”
“It is this toxic environment which drives burnout and our unhealthy coping behaviours,” he said, while noting that nurses drink, smoke and take more illegal drugs than the general population.
Joining the discussion, Katy Sutton, from the Manchester Central RCN branch, raised concerns about staff being afraid to speak up when they were feeling pressure because of the emphasis on individuals having resilience.
“I wonder if resilience is a good thing, when it just makes people put up and shut up. I wonder if it’s being used as a tool to blame people for their stress levels and if maybe, rather than being a means to prevent burnout, it’s actually a cause,” she said.
Sarah Finneran, from the Greater Bristol RCN branch, also joined the discussion and told delegates that if they were not resilient they would not have had the debates that they had had this week.
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“We’ve debated safe staffing, bullying, lack of supervision – all those things crack our resilience,” she said.
Ms Finneran urged managers to get on board and called for more support for all nurses on the matter.
“Resilience is a reaction to being defeated,” she said. “It is the face we put on, it is the mask. We are nurses, not actors.”
Student nurse Gemma Rafferty, from the Norfolk RCN branch, told delegates that during her training she was often told she must learn to be more resilient.
“To me, this has felt like being told that I should not show my emotions, should not show that I am struggling, and should not show that I am not perfect,” she said.
“This has led me to finding it increasingly difficult to ask for support or indeed mental health support when I really needed it,” she noted.
Ms Finneran warned RCN members at the conference to be careful when telling others to be resilient.
“Don’t tell me I’m not resilient, I lack time and resources, not resilience”
“You don’t know how they will interpret it or how they will take it forward, and how it could cause more harm than good,” she said.
Another member, Sharon Morris, from the North Wales branch, told delegates that, despite “bouncing back” from a life-changing brain injury and a serious assault from a patient, it was the “day in day out” demands in the workplace that she was struggling with.
Ms Morris explained the dread that she fellt going into a team meeting where she was told of more things she needed to do or the dread of a death among one of her patients.
“These things do affect us,” she said. “Don’t tell me I’m not resilient, I lack time and resources, not resilience.”
Meanwhile, in an emotional speech, Shelley Pearce, from the Portsmouth RCN branch, stated: “I am a nurse that is burnt out.”
Ms Pearce, who used to work as a nurse on the emergency department, said that while working in the department she had to be like an “elastic band”.
“You have to be able to work somewhere that has elastic walls. You have to be an elastic band and you have to stretch and do more and more, but with less and less,” she said.
“And instead of nursing you feel like you’re firefighting. Then you feel like you’re drowning,” she said, while holding back tears.
“I left that department because I was close to booking in as a patient. That needs to stop,” she added.
The matter of discussion, number 16, was titled That this meeting of Congress discusses if resilience is always a positive attribute and one to be aspired to in the modern health care workforce.