A series celebrating caregivers who go above and beyond.
Nurses involved in patient care generally don’t make time for their own self-care, and lead nurse Mary Sullivan Smith, DNP, RN, NEA-BC wanted to change that.
Around the same time, she was pursuing her doctorate in nursing practice, so Sullivan Smith, senior vice president, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at New England Baptist Hospital, chose “Mindfulness Training for Acute Care Nurses” as her capstone project to promote a healthy workplace.”
Smith Sullivan received her DNP in 2020, and research from this project has led to wellness programs at New England Baptist.
Smith Sullivan spoke up health guide about how mindfulness training can benefit nurses and help create a healthy workplace.
This transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
HealthLeaders: How did your interest in helping nurses embrace mindfulness come about?
Mary Sullivan Smith: I’ve always been interested in how one – a caregiver – takes good care of oneself over the course of a very dynamic and busy day. In this organization, we perform so many surgeries and the patient turnover is very fast that the nurses could attend and discharge four patients in the same day, so the throughput is very high. The average age of our patients is 64 years and in addition we all have comorbidities of caring for people as they have different systemic involvements during the aging process.
I believe there is no better profession than a registered nurse in terms of the depth and breadth to which one can contribute throughout one’s career, but it is a job that also demands a lot from people – from their heart, theirs soul, spirit and body – and that’s what I became curious about for my DNP project.
I started doing my own research and came across a study by the American Nurses Association that looked at the health of about 11,000 nurses over a period of time, and it showed that in this fast-paced, dynamic, 24/7 operating environment, there are definitely opportunities to increase and improve the health of caregivers.
I thought there must be ways to incorporate some of the healthier habits into the organization… and then I started looking for ways. Establishing a mindfulness practice is beneficial in many ways, but it certainly addresses the areas that worried me — caring more about others than myself and not making enough time to drink and eat well.
I was working with a colleague who is a certified mindfulness trainer and one of the residential care units agreed to work on my project. We took the time for them to do these mindfulness meditations and some were very brief. And this colleague of mine really taught people how to do short meditations and give resources for all sorts of things that can help you center and get a break.
Not only the nurses have benefited, but also other disciplines because we have put them on Zoom and invited people to participate. When I was done with the pilot, I introduced it into our program for nurses so that one aspect of our curriculum is wellness and self-care and they learn the benefits of meditation.
I’m also reopening this with the mindfulness teacher to do Zoom meditation training again. It was designed to meet people’s needs during work to clear their mind a little, center themselves and breathe deeply. I’m trying to build a group of mindfulness work and practitioners—those who have learned and been certified to do it—and continue to push this forward.
HL: How can mindfulness training specifically benefit a caregiver and thus promote a healthy workplace?
Sullivan Smith: It teaches a nurse that you can cleanse yourself through deep breathing, stretching, sitting, and meditating in a very short amount of time, and you don’t have to do it for long. You can do it for a few minutes. It offers a respite and helps people feel better.
[A colleague] I said how in our busy pre-op unit they stop from time to time and everyone gets off their computers, stretch and have a moment of stillness, which helps them to reorient and reset. So it’s a very small work, but it has great results or consequences. And the literature is full of the benefits of mindfulness.
It has re-emerged since the 1960s and 1970s, and now it’s a well-understood opportunity to incorporate mindfulness practices for stress management in an era that moves beyond some of the worst stressors healthcare professionals have to deal with.
HL: A recent study says most nurses experienced moral distress, especially in the early days of the pandemic. How does a nurse build a healthy workplace in the face of so much emotional damage?
Sullivan Smith: Yes, it was an incredible moral distress experienced by the nurses. What many have done is leverage human resources that exist in organizations. Other nurses did a lot of walking around and spoke to the nurses individually to make sure there was a debrief after really difficult situations. Much of this was face-to-face hands-on work to ensure that what someone went through is recognized.
Many nurses in this country have gone through other dark times. The AIDS epidemic varies in terms of the number of people affected, but that’s probably the closest anyone can think of to this COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the devastation, the loss, and the youthfulness and everything that’s happening with it. the patient can imagine. And the nurses were the focus, so there’s nothing more important than acknowledging what a nurse has been through.
HL: What advice would you give to nurses working to create a healthy work environment for nurses?
Sullivan Smith: Whether it is the lead nurse or other members of the nursing leadership team, it is important to look after the resilience of nurses and foster a workforce that can be carried into the future. It’s also important to pay attention to how people respond to small change tests, because that’s it, and there have been very good responses, and to try different modalities of stress reduction.
It’s all important. It is crucial for us to ensure that we create a good and healthy environment in which to work every day.
Check out the other nurses featured this week:
Also see: National Nurses Week 2022: A feature with K. David Bailey on how mentoring benefits both the mentor and the mentee
Also see: National Nurses Week 2022: A feature with Winnie Mele on how nurses can take care of their caregivers and themselves
Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, a brand of HCPro.