Nurse-Specific Trauma: Let’s Give It a Name

Welcome to Karen J. Foli, PhD, RN, FAAN who is joining the
Nursology.net blogging team! Karen is the author of the
Middle Range Theory of Nurses’-Psychological Trauma, the
Middle Range Theory of Parental Postadoption Depression
and co-author of the recently published book
The Influence of Psychological Trauma in Nursing

Karen J. Foli

When I was earning my PhD, my cognitive world opened up. I learned about how discourse not only reflects reality, it creates reality. In my estimation, The Influence of Psychological Trauma in Nursing allows us to see a reality that eluded us before. Decades later, I find my work in nurse-specific trauma reflecting truth and creating a reality that nurses experience, but couldn’t name. Therefore, their reality of it didn’t exist.

We often hear about compassion fatigue. Its etiology is linked with secondary or vicarious trauma, created by seeing others suffer and experience traumatic events. Conversations abound about how nurses need to be resilient and use resiliency as a buffer to mitigate secondary trauma and secondary traumatic stress. The issue of individual versus organizational culpability in nurse-specific trauma is one that is needed, and for another time…

In addition to secondary trauma, there are six additional nurse-specific and nurse-patient-specific traumas that I have named, described, and provided context for (Foli & Thompson, 2019): historical or intergenerational trauma; workplace violence, system-induced or medically induced trauma, second-victim trauma related to medical errors, trauma from disaster work, and insufficient resource trauma. This final type of trauma is one that I have recently coined based on a current study, the findings of which I will present at the upcoming American Academy of Nursing conference as an e-poster (Foli, 2019).

Insufficient resource trauma. Now that’s a new reality. Every single nurse I have spoken to quickly nods their head in affirming its existence. It’s the trauma that occurs when nurses do not have the knowledge/expertise, personnel, accessibility to other professionals, supplies, and tangible and intangible resources to fulfill their ethical, professional, and organizational responsibilities.

As a nurse… think of being placed in an unfamiliar patient situation with no one to call for help. Think of the shift you are working with an overload patient assignment and two of your patients “go bad.” Think of the phone incessantly ringing on your day off to come in because of short staffing and the guilt experienced because there is no way you can work another shift and be safe. Think of the medication that will be late because pharmacy made an error and the physician on call hasn’t answered the page and you need an answer stat. Think of going into a supply room for the dressing kit and the shelf is empty. But most of all, think of the patients’ call lights that go unanswered because there aren’t enough nurses to render care.

It’s not just a shortage of resources that cause insufficient resource trauma. It’s the push to do more in the time we have, including tackling the electronic health record and as we’ve known for years, sicker patients. In a recently published letter to the editor, “Decline of the American Nursing Profession,” Vignato (2019) describes the decreasing time spent with patients: “.. changes in our health care system are transitioning nurses away from a therapeutic relationship…With these time constraints, nurses are left to complete scripted tasks” (p. 255).

As a result, patients don’t obtain the care they need and deserve. The tendency to see them as tasks to do increases. Nurses leave the units at the end of their shifts feeling guilty, anxious, and isolated. It’s the stuff that kills our spirits.

A common metaphor used in understanding trauma, the iceberg, symbolizes the large mass of “stuff” that’s underneath what is visible. The proportion is such that what is above the water is a fraction of the frozen ice beneath the water’s surface. In the hidden, murky depths lies our processing of trauma, our feelings, needs, desires. Above the surface, for all to see are our behaviors that are born from trauma.

While I believe this metaphor is useful, I also assert that nurse-specific trauma, as events and habitual occurrences, are readily visible to others (Foli & Thompson, 2019). We have an audience watching most of our traumas day in and day out. But are we, our peers, our leaders paying attention?  Let’s give these traumas a name, let’s build reality, and then, let’s get to work on preventing what we can prevent and fixing what we can fix.

References

Foli, K. J. (Accepted; 2019). Nurses’ trauma: “They leave me lying awake at night.” E-poster. American Academy of Nurses 2019: Transforming Health, Driving Policy Conference, Washington, DC, October 24-26, 2019.

Foli, K. J., & Thompson, J. R. (2019). The influence of psychological trauma in nursing. Indianapolis, Indiana: Sigma.

Vignato, J. (2019). Letter to the editor: Decline of the American nursing profession. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 25(4), 255-256. doi: 10.1177/1078390319826702

3 thoughts on “Nurse-Specific Trauma: Let’s Give It a Name

  1. Hi Karen,
    Trauma in women and nurses is of deep interest to me. Your concept of historical trauma is incredibly insightful and I wonder if these traumas (even little “t” traumas) are what drew us to the discipline to begin with? In a discipline largely populated by women and with consideration of the traumas specifically endured by a vast majority of women in a patriarchal society and even a patriarchal hospital hierarchy, I often wonder if when we enter nursing, we continue to exhibit behavior that is trying to address out earlier traumas (small or large)? We work to the extent of being burnt out, we accept working conditions that are not conducive to a healthy working environment, we care to the point of compassion fatigue. Our empathy levels for ourselves and for others plummet as we endure. None of these serves the patient which is the ultimate goal. I would love to talk if you have time sabadams@iun.edu
    Thank you for this post.

    Like

  2. This is wonderful work, and points to another layer of “invisibility” where nurses’ contributions are concerned. Although Foli says that we should be noticing our peers’ realities, our own realities as nurses and supervisors are likely blinding us to others’ experience because of our own needs to “survive” in a system where all are over-taxed. I, too, am curious about the gender related possibilities of this theorizing. As a profession that remains largely female dominated, the influences of societal, intraprofessional, and personal expectations to maintain “untenable accommodation” is a factor for registered nurses. Is “untenable accommodation” a possible way of naming this situation?

    Like

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