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Self-Care isn’t Always Bubble Baths.

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Self-care is an increasingly important topic for nurses, but no one ever describes what self-care really means. Bubble baths won’t fix your short staffing issue, and a quick vacation may be fantastic for your soul, but it isn’t going to change your reality.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of indulgence. A fancy dinner, a quick vacation, or a spa day are all great ways to give yourself a break. Still, all of those things take time, planning, and money.

Those extra shifts may be helping in the money department, but planning a vacation or tipping 20% on a spa day may cause more stress than it relieves.

So what is self-care really?  

The truth is, it isn’t that exciting. You have something called mental load, the term for the 4.5 million things floating around in your head. You are the taskmaster, the unofficial captain of the ship, and the concierge service all rolled into one. That means that you have a mental to-do list of a wide variety of things at any given time. Even as you check items off the list, it grows.

  • It’s time for everyone’s dental appointment
  • You are almost 5 months past due for your annual exam
  • The dishes in the dishwasher are clean and need to be unloaded
  • The dog is due for shots next month
  • Your daughter told you she was almost out of toothpaste
  • Your car is due for an oil change in 435 miles.

That’s mental load. And statistically, it falls on the woman. For example, nearly 90% of women said they were responsible for their family’s organization and needs in one study.

The problem is that the mental load doesn’t end at home. As a nurse, you’ve also added things like room 4 needs water, room 6’s wife asked me to call her with updates, room 9 has meds due in an hour, and room 8 needs to move from the bed to the chair when I get a chance.

Every wonder why nurses are so good at managing their team? It’s because many of them are already doing the same thing at home. Add them together, and it is a recipe for exhaustion.

Sound familiar?

You have an ever-lengthening list of things to do at home and at work, and that list is what causes burnout, fatigue, and stress.

So what do you do about it? 

Taking a spa day or a staycation may help offload your list to another time, but it doesn’t solve your problems. For example, that massage felt great, but the doctor’s appointments still need to be made, and the sitter still needs to be paid. Also, Fido is running out of food.

If you really want to practice self-care, look at your list. Which two nagging tasks can you accomplish today so you can cross them off your list or at least put them officially on the calendar?

Can you call right now to make the dentist appointment? Can you get online and set up an auto-order for dog food? 

Every couple of weeks, set aside a “done” day. That is the day you go to appointments and mark things off the list. Need to wash the guest rooms sheets? It isn’t a priority for any other laundry day, but that pesky task increases your mental load. So do it on the done day.

Protect that time and try to get as much done on your list as possible during your “done” day. It may not be a relaxing day at the spa, but your shoulders will feel a little lighter knowing the list of “stuff” in your head is smaller. In addition, you are less likely to start forgetting the things on your mental list, and you are more likely to handle problems as they come up, instead of putting them on the back burner for later.

Self-care is really about decreasing your mental load. As your load decreases, so does your stress. You don’t need a foot scrub to feel better about your life; you need a day to feel like you’ve accomplished living.

Try a done day to see if this theory works for you!

Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN

Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN


Amanda is an ER nurse with 10 years of healthcare experience. She currently works as a nurse educator and as an adjunct professor for several schools. She also works as a freelance healthcare writer in her spare time. Amanda thinks the greatest thing about nursing is the endless possibilities and opportunities to learn. What have you learned today?


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