By Lucy Osborn MACN (ENL)

This column, The Scrubs that Fit,  is all about the highs and lows of being a junior nurse, from the perspective of an ACN Emerging Nurse Leader. The aim of these blog posts is to help ease the transition from university to grad years and beyond. Find Lucy on ACN’s neo and or Instagram @aussie_nurses.

In the lead-up to graduate applications and starting your career, I think it is important to be aware of what is considered “normal” emotions for nurses. Obviously we are all different and will react to every situation differently, but nearly every nurse has a time where they feel as if they can no longer be a nurse. This can be from a rough day, being unhappy in your workplace or finding out nursing is not your calling or future. We need to be self-aware of our emotions and become good at understanding and interpreting them.


What is “normal”? It is totally normal to be emotional, unemotional and overly emotional. In other words, normal is really whatever you are feeling. I mentioned to a nursing friend recently that I was concerned that I wasn’t emotional enough at work, she mentioned that she is concerned about this too. On a daily basis, I am exposed to heart-breaking stories, hyper-emotive parents and legal issues and if I was exposed to these issues outside of work I can guarantee I would be a blubbering mess. Although 90% of the time I remain ‘professional’ and slightly detached from situations, I have had cases where tears have flowed privately. So why, at work, am I nearly always able to deal with these issues with minimal emotive response?


Nobody trains you to deal with such things, but you do learn from observing other nurses the appropriate way to respond and it soon becomes your natural response at work. Is this a bad thing? Is this behaviour to be encouraged or changed? In my opinion, neither. I believe to remain professional and maintain a good therapeutic relationship there needs to be a mix of both.


In my specialty area, it is extremely important to stay calm and strong in times of despair when it comes to being around families and patients, but it is also just as important to explore your own emotions so you aren’t bottling them up for impending compassion fatigue. The hospital I currently work in is acutely aware of the amount of heavy socially and emotionally intense cases and they have a great support system that is accessible 24-hours. Most importantly, all of the staff members you work with are likely to have been in a similar situation, or may have been directly involved in the same case, making formal and informal debriefing easy and reliable. Debriefing is a difficult skill to manage and is something that you probably won’t ever perfect. I’ve witnessed seasoned nurses sobbing with sadness, shocked and overcome with joy because of patient outcomes and I too have had my moments of tears behind closed doors or at home with some wine or chocolate. There is no right way to feel when you come across emotionally challenging cases, but there is a right path to follow when you are reaching your professional limits.


A few of my suggestions:

  • Remove yourself from the situation completely. Leave the room and detach from any personal connections made
  • Seek a debrief. It is completely up to you who you decide to talk to. There are always people you can contact whether it be the 24/7 helplines supplied by each hospital, your co-workers, your nurse in charge or your pillow
  • Remember you are never alone, when it is overwhelming and consuming you it is so easy to feel alone and isolated, seek help, you aren’t the first to feel like this and you won’t be the last
  • Dissect the issue, is there something you can change or is this situation just unfortunate. If it comes down to a safety concern, speak up. Always let your charge nurses know if you have concerns about a patient or co-worker.


Unfortunately, it is not always easy to contain or control your emotions, according to a recent Deakin University study “women working in health professions have a rate of suicide which is three times higher than those in other occupations. Males nurses and midwives have close to double the rate of men who work in other professions” (ABC 2016).


This is a tremendous concern for the health professional community, we need to have more open lines of communication, less stigma and we need to look out for each other. Although this is a very grim topic, it’s important to normalise these conversations in order to be aware of issues that may be around you. It is okay not to be okay, what’s not okay is ignoring it. We are a team and we can’t look after our patients if we aren’t looking after ourselves. We won’t all reach this point of despair, but it’s important to be aware that it does happen. Be aware of your own emotions and if you are at anytime concerned that they are becoming too much speak up. Everybody has bad days so let’s band together to learn from them and make them less frequent and less intense.


These resources are available if you or anyone you know needs help:


Did you find this interesting? Read the rest of Lucy’s The Scrubs that Fit posts.


  1. Thank you for your insight into this difficult topic as well. I am also the middle of a crisis like Helen. Being straight out of university, at times I feel like following what everyone doing will definitely securing a future for my nursing career and at times, I feel like choosing to go into a different path of what everyone is doing won’t get me to secure a future in my nursing career. There is no friends that I know are in the same situation as mine. I have already sought help and assistance for my ultimate concern and I am deeply concerned about the next step, my change in focus/ career/ job when this occurs? How can we, as nurses, manage the next transition, if that means a step away from the emotional roller-coaster? I am also struggling to find the support and assistance I need in this and also wonder if others are in a similar situation as mine?

  2. Thank you for your insight into this difficult topic. Like you, I have found myself in a myriad of emotions when it comes to nursing. I have been able to remain professional throughout, with the sure knowledge that the nursing and allied health teams, of which I am part, have all felt similar pain/joy/sorrow, and that there are always avenues to seek help. I have sought help personally for emotional debriefing, willingly and gratefully. My question is, what about the next step? How can we engage with each other beyond our experiences? How can we support each other through a change in focus/ career/ job, when this occurs? How can we, as nurses, manage the next transition, if that means a step away from the emotional roller-coaster that is nursing…? I am struggling to find the support and assistance I need in this, and wonder if others are too?

    • Hi Helen,

      I am sorry to hear you are struggling to find support.
      Please contact me on NEO via the link in the article or contact ACN for my email and perhaps i can help find you a channel of support.

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