Nurses share special connections with their colleagues.
While it’s true that members of the caring profession are sometimes uncivil to each other, that’s not the whole story. Despite differences in our roles, we share a unique bond.
For more than a decade, I have been studying and writing about toxic nursing relationships. At times, stories about the painful fallout of relational aggression (RA) can paint an overwhelmingly negative picture. Members of the caring profession can be not so caring to each other.
There is another kind of story we don’t focus on as much as we should: the joys of our professional relationships. In times of crisis, I want a nurse by my side. Endlessly supportive, nurses work extra shifts, prepare meals, and offer prayers, child care, and emotional backing in ways I suspect other professionals can’t—or don’t. But the connections we share go much deeper than any of those activities.
“I’m a nurse”
On a bitingly cold night this past December, I reported for volunteer duty at a local shelter where guests rendered homeless by sad circumstances could spend the night. Huddled in the small space, a woman and I began talking.
“I’m a nurse,” she told me, and she went on to share the story of her work life. I found myself nodding my head in agreement with her observations and insights. For one hour, we found sisterhood—two women who knew what it was like to perform an assessment, watch someone die, or witness a birth.
A few months earlier, I had attended a charity event and met a man who owned a business. As he and his wife shared their backgrounds with me, I learned that not only was he a nurse—he also was familiar with some of the hospitals where I had worked. Our excitement over discovering mutual acquaintances and sharing experiences may have left others at our table feeling a bit bewildered. But as he later described our chance meeting in a text to another nurse, we shared a connection. He’s right. We do.
The same, only different
Every nurse shares this connection, perhaps because of our training. Each of us has attended classes with similar content and rotated through most of the same clinical areas, which means even if we don’t end up being an OR, ED, or psychiatric nurse, we know what it is like to function in those capacities. We understand in a way unique to our profession what colleagues in those areas might be going through.
If we could harness the power of the 4 million nurses in the United States, we could change healthcare in this country and beyond. Even though that number includes a diverse group of women from countries around the world, multiple generations, and, increasingly, men, our shared perspective and education have not changed. Over time, what was once largely a “sisterhood” has become a close-knit community not bound by gender.
At my diploma-granting school of nursing, the only male student—a novelty in those days—showed me how easy camaraderie is when there’s shared purpose. In the years that followed, I found other kindred spirits like him: the hospital nurse I ate dinner with during my CCU/ICU days, the faculty member who blended compassion with a dry sense of humor, the clinical manager who wanted to make our work life better, and the research partner who shared my interest in gerontology. All were men with a pro-nursing mindset.
As a professor, I’ve connected with international nurses whose training and roles are vastly different from mine. A South African colleague had fewer credentials but far greater responsibility and autonomy than I do as a nurse practitioner. When I was a visiting professor in Sweden, I didn’t understand why my lecture on educating older patients about medications fell so flat until a senior nurse explained that, in their country, that’s the job of pharmacological professionals. I became aware of other distinctions when communicating with fellow nurses from the UK, Australia, Japan, France, and Poland. Yet, despite differences in our roles, we still share a bond that says, “We have a common purpose in life.”
Not every nurse inspires this sense of instant connection, but, significantly, most do. It’s not by chance that, for 17 years in a row, the Gallup Poll has revealed the profession of nursing as the most trustworthy. Ethical and caring, we are privileged to share the most intimate aspects of our patients’ lives.
One of several healthy relationship strategies I teach is to build on our sense of community. Tell others how much you enjoy working with them. Praise liberally. “I really was impressed by the way you got Mr. X to take his meds,” or “I’m always happy to see your name on the schedule next to mine.” For one week, find and share something positive about at least one co-worker every day and see how it affects you—and them.
We are entering an era of opportunity. Don’t allow negativity to diminish or destroy your relationships. Instead of being the nurse who hurts nurses, be the nurse who helps. RNL
Cheryl A. Dellasega, PhD, CRNP, a professor of medicine and humanities at Penn State College of Medicine and a professor of humanities and women’s studies at The Pennsylvania State University, is the author of What to Do When Nurses Hurt Nurses, Second Edition, published by Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma).
Editor’s note: Cheryl Dellasega presented Relational Nurse Champions: Creators of a Healthy Workplace at Sigma’s 2019 Creating Healthy Work Environments conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.