Lean On Me

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

I’ll let you in on a trade secret that took me some time to learn. One of the best ways to be successful in the nursing profession is to learn to rely on your fellow nurses for information, support, guidance and help. And contrary to what you may have heard, the majority of nurses are very supportive of one another.

Nurses have a tendency to stay isolated in their work. This might be because of the confidential nature of our work, so we feel uncomfortable discussing it with others. Perhaps it’s because we sometimes get so busy and wrapped up in our own individual assignments that we forget about the big picture. Maybe it’s because we’ve been led to believe we have to “make it on our own” without any help from others, or that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Whatever the reason, staying isolated and trying to go it solo are sure ways to have a short and unhappy career in nursing. Here are six ways to tap into the best-kept secret in nursing – your colleagues.

Take advantage of a professional association membership. You put yourself at a great disadvantage if you don’t belong to and participate in professional associations. Through professional associations, you develop friendships and relationships in nursing beyond your workplace. You have a whole pool of people to share information and ideas with, to learn from and to use as a sounding board. After a recent lecture I gave to nurses, one of the participants came up to me and said, “I’ve heard about the benefits of networking. Can you suggest some places for me to network because nurses don’t have those cocktail parties that they do in business circles.” I responded, “We most certainly do – through our professional associations!”

I’ve come to rely on my state chapter of the American Nurses Association for so many things. For example, I recently needed information on latex allergies, so I called the association to see if they could point me in the right direction. They referred me to another member who is an expert on the subject.

Professional associations give you access to industry leaders and nurses at all levels of experience and practice in various specialties. Many associations offer mentoring to new graduates and other helpful services and programs. But don’t wait until graduation. While a student, you should be active in your local chapter of the National Student Nurses’ Association. You need all the help you can get, not only as a student and new graduate but also with each new situation, new job, promotion, etc. Take advantage of this valuable resource. Networking is a very effective way to find a job, especially in a tough economy, so this is a great place to do just that.

Find a soul mate in nursing. It might be a coworker, a fellow student, or a former instructor. It’s got to be someone you trust and can rely on for support and feedback whenever you need it. It should be a person you can call anytime to vent after a bad day, to discuss a challenging situation or to laugh or cry. I recently interviewed a new graduate who works in a neonatal ICU – obviously a high stress area. She told me about a coworker with whom she had developed such a relationship. They can talk on the phone about work and their patients without breeching confidences. Each has an unspoken understanding of the other’s situation. She feels this to be one of the most valuable relationships for her as a nurse.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Asking questions is a great way to learn, no matter what the phase of your career. But of course, it’s especially important when you are a student or a new graduate. There’s more help around than many people realize. Believe it or not, most people are happy to help and are thrilled to be asked. Nurses love to teach and are nurturing by nature. They may not offer assistance without being asked for fear they are intruding. Of course you’ll occasionally encounter grouches who can’t be bothered. Steer clear of them, and seek out friendly and competent people for advice and information.

When I was younger, I was afraid to ask questions. I feared it would show my ignorance, and I thought people would look down on me for “not knowing.” The problem with that was then I stayed in a perpetual state of “not knowing.” Experience alone is not always the best teacher. I eventually learned I needed to ask only once, get an answer to my question and from then on would be “in the know.” I made a commitment to bite the bullet and start asking questions when I needed to know something. I was amazed at how friendly and helpful most people were. The best part was I significantly increased my learning curve by seeking the help of colleagues whose experiences simply were different from mine. Now I’m usually the first and last to ask a question in a group!

Do unto others. Want others to treat you well and help you when you need it? Set the stage. Become a supportive and helpful coworker yourself. Be ready to lend a helping hand, even if you’re not asked. You don’t have to be an experienced nurse to help out. For example, if you’re walking past a patient room and see someone struggling to move a patient, offer to help. An extra pair of hands for a few seconds can make all the difference. If you notice another nurse seems to be having a bad day, offer to cover for a few minutes if he or she needs a break. If someone needs to switch weekends to accommodate a family event, volunteer to help out. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” What you put out into the universe will come back to you in spades. You help them, and they’ll help you.

Use the Internet. Cyberspace gives us a wealth of opportunities to share information. Many websites, including Nurse.com and those of various professional associations, offer live chats, bulletin boards and listservs where you can read and post messages on various topics. Some of these forums are for specialty topics, such as emergency nursing or psych nursing, while others are more general. A few websites even offer cyber mentoring to students, new graduates and those interested in a particular specialty.

Be active on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, too. There is a large nursing community on each of these sites. Not only is this community valuable when you need information or advice, but members also can offer support and encouragement when needed. And of course, they’re open 24/7!

Develop and maintain professional relationships. When people have stressful jobs, they can tend to pull away from one another rather than relying on one another to ease their burden. It’s important to make an effort to get to know the people you work with and to develop good relationships with them. People will be more inclined to help you and show you the ropes if they know you and can see you are making an effort to know them. You have to take the initiative. Make it your business to learn people’s names and to use their names when addressing them. Express admiration and respect for those more experienced than you. Greet people each day. Have lunch or break with someone you don’t know well. A word of caution: Avoid negative cliques and negative people. They’ll drag you down and offer no benefit.

Participate in departmental parties and celebrations. If others bring in food occasionally, do so yourself. Become a part of the team. Attend awards dinners and show your support of others. Go to company picnics and holiday events. All of these things are part of developing friendly, supportive relationships with your colleagues. Be sure to stay in touch with your fellow students, former instructors and past coworkers, too. Just because you don’t see one another regularly doesn’t mean the relationship is over.

Open yourself up to friendship and supportive colleagueship in nursing. Be the nurse you’d like others to be, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Create win-win relationships in your professional life. Learn to rely on your fellow nurses for information, support, encouragement and help. Your career path will be smoother and happier when you adopt a “lean on me” philosophy.

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