By: Heather Mason

Busy nurses station at hospitalWhile nursing is often rewarding, interesting and praiseworthy, it is also undoubtedly a challenging role. In fact, when we discuss the profession of nursing, phrases such as “stress” and “burnout” are rarely far from the conversation, with staffing pressures and sometimes a lack of proper funding making the profession — which is inherently high-pressure — even more difficult.

There are increasing calls to include yoga in healthcare systems across the world, both for the benefit of the patients but to also help doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals better cope with the strains and stresses of daily life on the ward — from back problems to burnout. Mindfulness and yoga can offer both relief to immediate stress and increased resiliency over the long term, so individuals find it easier to remain calm even in trying circumstances.

While larger, system-wide changes are needed to comprehensively support healthcare professionals, giving nurses the tools which can help them deal with common pressures is becoming increasingly vital to ensure that we, to use a common phrase, “care for the carers”.

Why is nursing considered a stressful profession?

Nursing is a vital societal role. Comparable to firefighters, doctors, farmers, and teachers, if large numbers of nurses failed to work, we would face instant and untold ramifications. Nurses will often fight their way into hospitals through crippling weather events (as seen in the 2018 snowstorms in Britain) and even work when they are unwell, keenly aware of the impact on patients that any non-attendance can have.

Despite their importance, however, the role of a nurse is widely misunderstood. Public perception still relies heavily on the image of someone who makes the bed and does personal care, when these (no less crucial) roles are usually fulfilled by healthcare assistants. Nurses, by contrast, are highly trained medical professionals to whom even doctors will defer to, should a nurse have greater experience or knowledge.

This perception can mean that nursing can be considered “low-skilled” (although I would argue that no caring role should be seen in this way) and not viewed with the same esteem as other medical professions. Relatively low pay is an issue for nurses in some countries, with a recent UK controversy involving the news that some nurses are so financially stretched they have to visit food banks. Studies also indicate that lack of support from senior staff is a stressor for nurses, which may be linked to this issue.

Along with other medical staff, nurses also often work in shifts, for long hours, across public holidays, weekends, and nights — finding it difficult to juggle their job with their personal lives. Shifts are sometimes so intense that nurses will skip breaks and even find they can’t get to the bathroom, and when the physical work of nursing is done, there is also extremely important paperwork to attend to.

As a caring role, nursing involves a large amount of emotional labor — nurses regularly see events such as severe physical/mental illness, critical accidents, and death — that most people will only encounter a handful of times over their entire lifetime. Dealing with elderly patients with dementia, young people facing terminal illness, and occasionally aggressive patients can be both upsetting and exhausting.

Ultimately, while other jobs can be stressful due to the pressure of financial, service, or administrative responsibilities, healthcare is almost unique in the fact that mistakes can potentially have life-or-death consequences — making this sector one of the most stressful to work in.

Yoga for nurses

Woman practicing yoga on walking bridge.

There are a plethora of reasons why yoga can be beneficial to nurses, especially when we consider the particular challenges of their work life. Whether it’s working night shifts in ER, being a staff nurse in a psychiatric unit, or assisting a doctor in private practice, there are various stresses across every nursing role which yoga can ease.

Exercise is a common form of self-care and yoga is, many would argue, uniquely beneficial because it is also a mindful, meditative activity which can be adapted to be purely secular or fully spiritual, according to personal preference. It can also be adapted to address certain issues or accommodate certain physical needs — as when, for example, a person suffers with back pain, or is recovering from mental trauma.

With research on the stress-relieving qualities of yoga having been conducted for decades now, there is convincing and rapidly growing evidence that strongly suggests yoga is an effective way to decrease stress — with yoga for anxiety reduction proving particularly successful. It appears that yoga regulates our stress response, reducing our perceived stress and anxiety and lessening the physiological symptoms of stress, such as increased heart rate, sweating, and digestive problems.

The practice of yoga has been found to reduce serum cortisol levels , reduce stress and anxiety, and improve confidence in dealing with stressful situations. A study by Berger &, Owen in 1992 associated regular yoga practice with increased positive mood, and yoga has been shown to increase dopamine levels with a subsequent impact on the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. Studies also suggest that yoga is an efficacious method of relieving lower back pain.

Nurses taught through the Yoga in Healthcare Alliance shared that the yoga made them feel lighter, more peaceful, and less time-constrained, and those who had been experiencing burnout reported that they felt more connected to the reasons why they had trained as a nurse in the first place.

As nurses handle the unique challenges of their role, yoga could become a great support in their lives. Providing yoga to nurses would allow them to deal with the inevitable stress that comes with their healthcare responsibilities, both through the immediately calming effects of yogic breathing exercises and the long-term benefits of a regular yoga practice.

Heather MasonHeather Mason is a yoga therapist and founder of The Minded Institute, who provide professional training in the application of yogic techniques in the treatment of various physical and mental health issues. She also campaigns for the introduction of yoga into healthcare through the Yoga in Healthcare Alliance.