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'Nurses must meet their own spiritual needs, not just those of their patients'


Nursing Times blogger Evelyn Khan-Panni on the importance of spirituality in nursing.

Spirituality is an essential part of our lives and cannot be ignored. As nurses we must be able to articulate it in the context of caring. We have long been acknowledged as experts in caring for the body, but it took us much longer to gain an expertise in caring for the mind, and this is another challenge, as people who are sick need to recover in body, mind, and spirit.

In a recent edition of the RCN Bulletin, (19 May 2010), Ben Funning reports on an RCN survey and Congress discussion on spirituality. The majority of the respondents said that spirituality was a fundamental part of the profession. However, the online survey of more than 4,000 nurses found that only 5 per cent felt they could always meet the spiritual needs of patients, while 80 per cent felt spirituality should be covered in nurse education as a core aspect of nursing. Clearly there is a big gap between the perceived need and what happens in practice.

In my view, spirituality is energy, individual energy, group energy, and collective energy. Individual energy is what motivates me, what gives me determination, courage, and conviction. Group energy is the same thing that occurs in small groups; for example family groups. Families also need to be motivated, determined, courageous, and have conviction.

Collective energy is what brings a large number of like minded people together, sporting events, open-air concerts, and to meet a famous person. If you have ever attended such an event I am sure you will have noticed that there is an atmosphere. This atmosphere reflects the collective energy and may go some way to explain why in the middle of a football match the assembled gathering will spontaneously burst into song and hundreds of people will suddenly find themselves singing the same song without apparent prompting from anyone.

Through our journeys in life we collect joys and sorrows. Our joys are demonstrated in achievement, happy times, and we celebrate. Our sorrows on the other hand come from disappointments and sadness. This is the place where a lot of our learning, deliberation, and change will occur. It is well known that we learn more in time of struggle and strife than in times of pleasure and harmony.

If, as was suggested in the online survey of more than 4,000 nurses only 5 per cent felt they could always meet the spiritual needs of patients that would seem to indicate that 95 percent feel they are unable to meet patient’s spiritual needs. Are the respondents to that survey able to meet their own spiritual needs? The article seems to suggest that many people think that spirituality is about religion. If that is your belief, then I ask you, are non believers without spirituality?

Spirituality is the ability to be able to retreat from your surroundings to a life of inner richness and spiritual freedom. It is a non material connection that derives from one’s higher purpose. There is a connection between religion and spirituality in the same way that other parts of our lives are connected to spirituality. When people are in religious mode, in a religious place, or just praying alone they are usually more at peace than at other times. They are in touch with their inner self; their inner self is their spiritual self.

In order for nurses to be able to attend to the patient’s spiritual needs they must be able to attend to their own spiritual needs to do that we must know what our spiritual needs are, and when they are most in need of attention. Life must be purposeful to be meaningful and we need to connect the past to the present for inward peace. If we lose sight of our purpose and cannot find any meaning in life we are likely to find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness, and we need help to escape.

Spirituality is about oneness, oneness with oneself, oneness with people in our immediate environment, oneness with family, oneness with friends, colleagues, classmates, associates, strangers.

On the larger stage spirituality is about oneness with our country folk, and oneness with the rest of the world.

 A spiritual accomplishment is the ability to live to fight another day. It is inner strength, courage, hope, determination…Spirituality may be little understood, but its value and its power are felt in all that we do. When we understand it we can harness its power for the good we seek to do and for the benefit of others.

  • Don’t miss our 2 part series on spirituality, to be published next week.

About the author

Evelyn Khan-Panni worked as a nurse tutor in the mental health service in Ireland for twenty four years. She also worked in Scotland, Wales, and Canada. She is currently living in London and is worked as a lecturer in Health Care.


Readers' comments (11)

  • Thank you Evelyn for your concise guide to human spirituality - you put in words what most of us struggle to verbalise.
    Truly it is important for nurses to realise the "pupose" of spirituality in general to be able to meet somebody's individual spiritual expectations and address their needs. It is all about our integrity as human beings: I am who I am , I keep learning myself and share my "soul" with others. The true treasure of such experience is a variety of ways we celebrate our spirituality and the miracle of life is that we can share this experience with others.
    Now the question is what is the biggest enemy of human spirituality? Its name is FEAR. That is also the main reason why we are somehow disabled to look after our patients holisticaly. Ironicaly the origin of this fear I found in political correctness which is the devil in disguise. Invented to prevent individuals now it seems to be the responsible for unnecessary dilemmas we struggle with at the point of care.
    What you think?

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  • I mean no disrespect to the author but currently so little education is directed towards anatomy and physiology that i seee little point to this. outside of halal meals and who to contact from the pastoral team why should we learn this. most hospitals have a chaplaincy team that caters for spiritual needs, though in my experience religion and spirituality count for little seeing as no treatments are spirituality based. This is nursing insisting on taking on things not remotely related to recovering from illness.

    No research supports her views in the long run.

    Science not pseudo-science please

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  • twaddle! spirituality and beliefs are a private affair which one may wish to share or not with others - free choice. Patients do not always want another's beliefs and values rammed down their throats by the self-rightous who should be caring for their physical needs in an adeequate and appropriate way. Whilst I think nurse training should cover adequate information on all religions and touch upon other beliefs and values they may come across and learn to respect them I do not think they should be forced to share theirs unless they find it appropriate to do so otherwise why not make spirituality a criteria for entry into nurse training if that's what you want but which would exclude a lot of excellent caring nurses from the profession.
    The worst experience I ever had was meeting a senior student nurse at a Christian Union social gathering who I then later found as my 'superior' on night duty and who had one a gold medal for her excellent services only to discover that she swept all the things she didn't want to do under the carpet so that she appeared fast and efficient at her work and was the apple of Sister's eye - eg filling in the figures on the 4-hourly temperature charts from previous readings earlier in the day instead of going round recording the patients' temperatures in the book. Telling me off for taking too long to wash patients the way I was learning in school. She told me that patients didn't get dirty in bed and just needed topping and tailing - so that's what goes on behind the curtains and more patients could get washed in a shorter space of time and she had more time to flirt with the doctors in Sister's office - out of bounds to us students - and this was in one of the most highly reputed London Teaching Hospitals. leave spirituality and religion to the experts and do you own job of delivering nursing care properly and with a good conscicence and leave the rest to the experts in their field - that's what they are being paid for.

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  • I am relieved that I am not the only one who thinks this is not a part of our role. The continual stream of 'nurses must' articles that appear in the nursing press is such a downer. It is about time that there were more articles celebrating what we do well.

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  • At a time when numerous reports slate nurses in all disciplines for failure to demonstrate compassion andnurse with dignity, i find some of these "science based " criticisms disturbing.This subject is based in care deliverers recognising and respecting individuals values,not in tokenistic nods to formal religious practice.
    It is this tokenism that leads to ineffective care.Nursing depends upon three pillars, knowledge, skills, and attitude,and no amount of increased knowledge of anatomy and physiology will equip staff with the ability to engage with the distressed person if they cannot read and respect the values of the person they are with.
    As for scientific arguments against spirituality, i suggest that a reading of Dawkins "the selfish gene" would shed light on scientific, atheistic views on "spirit" that might surprise.
    the arguments against stated here are either emotive descriptions of individual poor practice,which should be tackled at source, as expected under the code of conduct,or cite spirituality as not evidenced or recovery related.The Recovery agenda in mental health is based entirely in issues of identity ,values,meaning and hope, all of which fall way outside the bio mechanistic attitude displayed by the contributors above.

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  • Lynnie

    Hmmmm - didnt a nurse get into problems recently for this very thing? I seem to remember and article not too long ago in the Nursing Times about a nurse who offered to pray for her patient and was suspended when the patient complained that 'somebody might be offended' by it.
    I think keeping your views to yourself might the be the best policy and leaving patients to have their spiritual guidance from their 'chosen provider' would be at least the safest option for us.

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  • keeping ones views to oneself is a safe option, but this does not absolve us from our duty to address the needs of our service users,as they are a fundamental part of their identity.however in being aware of ones own values,and the respect we would wish them shown, we can understand their personal importance,and afford the same respect to others.
    if the person in the recent case had asked to be prayed for, how would a nurse respond?
    No one should beusing their status to advance their own agenda, but when a person expresses a clearly felt need, we have a duty to respond.We more importantly,have a duty to ask

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  • I agree that spirituality is our connectedness to others, and has little to do with religion - although some people do find connectedness through religion, most find it within their families and communities.
    When on shift, we always owe it to the patient to put them first. We must never look at a patient through a bias of beliefs and not science. We should definitely study religions and belief systems continually to stay up with what might be on our patients' minds.

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  • >Spirituality is an essential part of our lives and cannot be ignored. As nurses we must be able to articulate it in the context of caring. We have long been acknowledged as experts in caring for the body, but it took us much longer to gain an expertise in caring for the mind, and this is another challenge, as people who are sick need to recover in body, mind, and spirit.

    I think your wrong. If anything nurses are excellent at caring for whole people. And in the first paragraph you confuse mind and spirit and then find another stick to beat ourselves with.

    What is spirit again? I thought we had dispensed with all that after refuting Descartes.

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  • It concerns me greatly that some of the above comments are so negative regarding spirituality and it being part of our role as nurses. Spirituality is part of NICE Guidance on supportive and palliative care, and in the more recent End of Life Strategy. If we are to provide holistic care to our patients then surely we should have an understanding of what spirituality is, and be albe to recognise that it is generally not about religion, so knowing about Halal meals will not be much help to the patient who has true spiritual pain and is in need of a health care professional recognising it and knowing who to refer onto.
    I feel it is very narrow minded and worrying that any nurse would feel that anatomy and physiology is more important that a patients spiritual, psychological, and emotional well being, and as patient advocates we should be ensuring that we have self awareness and update ourselves in all areas of our patients potential concerns.

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