UC Irvine builds nurse well-being, compassion fatigue into curriculum

When Leanne Burke, EdD, MSN, began her career in nursing more than 25 years ago, the "nurses eat their young" adage was palpable. 

"Almost that fraternity mentality. 'If I have to do it, you have to do it,'" Ms. Burke told Becker's in a recent interview. 

Today, she is an associate clinical professor and director of pre-licensure programs at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing at UC Irvine (Calif.), where nursing students are taught about topics such as compassion fatigue and well-being — an illustration of how much progress has been made in the field since the days where the toll of a tough day would barely be acknowledged. 

Healthcare organizations have ramped up their focus on nurse and clinician well-being over the last few years. Overall, there's a greater awareness that, "if we're an empty vessel, there's nothing left to give," Ms. Burke said. But there's still a lot more work to be done to take well-being from being a "trend" or occasional theme to an inherent part of the routine — a norm in nursing. "I think that needs to be a much bigger cultural shift and it needs to be much more the fabric of what we are," as an industry, Ms. Burke said. 

And part of that starts with nurse education. 

"We think about [well-being and burnout] even when we are building course calendars" for nursing students at UC Irvine, she said, adding that faculty consider factors such as how many difficult or lengthy classes students may have back to back and whether there is room to separate those out, as well as traffic patterns and students' commuting times. 

Aspiring nurses are also learning about compassion fatigue from the get-go. The nursing school has a course called "Compassion, caring and communication with vulnerable populations," and a leadership class where students develop modules for practicing nurses to mitigate compassion fatigue. 

"So they're doing work for others in this space," Ms. Burke said. "We're teaching them how to teach it. We're also trying to help them live it." 

Two more takeaways from the conversation: 

  • Stronger collaboration between nursing schools and clinical partners can better ensure nurses are well equipped when transitioning into practice — one measure that could mitigate troubling projections about how much worse the nursing shortage could get and prevent turnover among new nurses. 

"As long as we can align our expectations really well and closely, then I think we'll have a better opportunity to have fewer new graduate nurses feel like they're too overwhelmed," she said. 

  • Don't underestimate the value of internal nurse residency programs, Ms. Burke said when asked whether she thinks more health systems should roll out comprehensive nurse residency programs. "I would have loved to have gone through that. I think those programs are fabulous." More structured transition-to-practice programs are no doubt a significant investment for healthcare organizations, but she expects they would pay themselves back in spades.

"I think it is worth every penny because those new graduates, those nurses, are much more prepared for everything that comes forward. They feel more supported. They're more invested in that agency, wherever that may be, and they have stronger skills." 

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