The Importance of Empathy in Nursing

building empathy as a nurse

The role of a nurse is often considered to be one of the most selfless and caring roles in the world. In the nursing profession, treating patients with empathy, kindness and compassion is just as much a key part of the job as treating illnesses and patching up wounds. Known throughout the role as the ‘bedside manner’, practicing empathy as a nurse does not always come without its challenges, especially for professionals who have many demands that they need to ensure are met throughout the working day. However, empathy is a key part of becoming and working as a great nurse and ensuring that patients are provided with the right standard of care and helped as much as possible. In many advanced nursing roles, where nurses have more authority and responsibility for treating patients such as the role of a nurse practitioner, empathy is often even more crucial since these professionals are primary care providers.

What is Empathy?

Most human beings have an ability to empathize; some are naturally better at it than others. Empathy is the ability to identify with the thoughts and feelings of others. For nurses, this can often simply mean that they understand that patients aren’t excited to be in the hospital. Many of the patients that nurses help on a daily basis are going to be in the hospital feeling unwell, in pain and frightened. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for some patients to be rude, demanding or mean. Nurses know that this is simply due to the situation that the patient is in, and that they’re probably not like this normally. A good nurse is able to empathize with their patient and not take any such behavior personally. They can look past how the patient is acting and understand why they’re acting that way.

As a nurse, empathizing with patients often means understanding the reasons behind their negative attitudes or actions. Generally, this is a result of pain, fear and frustration in their situation. Nurses can empathize with the fact that it can sometimes be difficult for patients to get answers to their questions and that they may be frustrated if they feel that they are being overlooked. In some cases, patients might be nervous or frightened about a potential diagnosis, or worrying about how much the healthcare they are receiving is going to cost them.

Practicing Empathy in Nursing

In nursing, practicing empathy begins by putting yourself in the shoes of the patient and imagining how they might be feeling. It’s important to avoid focusing on anything that the patient is doing that you might not like and rather make the effort to see things from their perspective. Many nurses will do this by taking the time to speak to the patient and find out what their main worries and concerns are. In some cases, it might not always be possible for you to fully understand and relate to their fears. Perhaps you have never been admitted to a hospital as a patient before or have had to worry about becoming sick or injured when you don’t have health insurance. However, we can usually all relate to how it feels to be worried, scared, and in pain.

In this career, empathy is also an important quality to demonstrate when dealing with a patient’s family members. Oftentimes, a patient’s loved ones are also feeling a little lost and helpless in the situation. Not only do they not know what they can do to make things better, but they are also in a position where they can’t do much else other than sit by and watch their loved one scared and in pain. In nursing, it’s important to understand that when family members are off with you or acting mean and rude, it’s not usually a personal thing; it’s more likely to be due to the frustration and fear that they are feeling with the situation that they are in right now.

Acting without Judgement

One of the biggest qualities in a good nurse is the ability to act without judgement when it comes to patients. When dealing with patients, it’s important to refrain from judging them as empathy does not allow for somebody’s personal bias or opinions to play a part in treatment. For many nurses, this might be in a situation where they are treating somebody for conditions that personal choices may have played a part, for example. An empathetic nurse will not judge somebody for the potential choices that they might have made in the past that have led to this situation, but will rather spend the time to get to know them and find out more about their lives. It may turn out that they have turned to unhealthy decisions in the past as they did not have many other choices. For example, somebody who is suffering from obesity-related issues may not have had the financial means to eat healthier foods, or they have been suffering with their mental health and have struggled to get the right nutrition. For nurses, it’s important to remember that everybody’s life is different and every patient will be facing their own unique challenges that the nurse is there to help them deal with and overcome.

Listening with Empathy

In the role of a nurse, listening is key. Every patient that you will encounter in your nursing career will need you to listen to them. But while listening is important in order for nurses to be able to get a better understanding of physical or mental symptoms and side effects that a patient might be experiencing, it’s also important for nurses to listen to other things that are expressed by the patient. For example, they might be worried about who is looking after their children while they are in the hospital or they could be frustrated that they are out of work due to being sick or injured and are going to lose income as a result.

Sometimes, patients just want somebody who is caring and understanding to listen to them and let them know that they are not alone. For many nurses, this means spending the time to get to know their patients a little better on a personal level rather than merely discussing their health. Doing this makes it easier for healthcare professionals to empathize with patients and imagine what the situation must feel like for them right now. And, when patients feel that somebody is interested in finding out more about them and cares for them as an individual rather than seeing them as a number on a chart, they are more likely to feel at ease and relaxed, which can actually help to improve their health.

Top Ways to Demonstrate Empathy in Nursing

While there’s a lot that you can learn from nursing school and advanced nursing degree programs at the masters and postgraduate level, empathy is often a quality that will come from the nurse themselves. Whether you are currently studying to become a nurse, you are new to the profession or have been working in nursing for some time, there are several things that you can do to improve the way that you demonstrate empathy with your patients and help them feel more understood and cared about.

·         Make Eye Contact:

Whether you’re listening or speaking to your patient, making eye contact can be a powerful way to demonstrate empathy with them. Making eye contact can sometimes be difficult for nurses – after all, you have a lot of other things to focus on the job and making eye contact might be impossible if you are reading a chart or taking notes. However, doing it from time to time will help your patients feel more seen. In fact, studies have found that the patients of doctors who made more eye contact with them typically had better heath and listened better to medical advice.

·         Notice Nonverbal Cues:

As a nurse, it’s important to understand that what some patients are saying might not always be the full story of how they really feel. Some patients will not tell you how they are really feeling since they don’t want to be a bother or worry anybody. However, their body language and nonverbal cues can often give the game away. Even if somebody says that they are fine, their nonverbal cues might say otherwise such as picking at their nails, looking at the floor or slouching in their seat.

·         Challenge Your Own Prejudices:

No matter how non-judgmental and open-minded a nurse might be as an individual, there are always going to be certain people that you might not feel very comfortable around. Challenging these prejudices in your personal life can make it easier for you to apply empathy in the workplace. Think of somebody that you’re not always comfortable around and try to put yourself in their shoes. What might their life be like? What kind of struggles might they face? What do they want from life?

The job of a nurse involves much more than long hours, charts and patients. This career requires a lot on an emotional level, and the ability to empathize with patients is one of the most important skills a nurse can possess.

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