Critical Care Crib Sheet: 7 Tips from a Longtime ICU Nurse

June 28, 2022

We see you, ICU nurses – tackling high stakes shift after shift, often with too few resources.

You’ve been essential frontline workers since before they were buzzwords, displaying unmatched resilience that can come at a cost: In a 2021 study by the American Journal of Critical Care, 53.2% of critical care nurses reported anxiety symptoms, while 39.5% reported signs of depression . Many of you are turning to travel contracts or leaving the field altogether.

While profoundly saddened by this reality, we aren’t shocked by it. In talking with longtime ICU nurse Michael Kirk, MSN, RN, CNML, we honed in on a few tips for alleviating harder moments on the job. Mike, an RN for 25+ years, is the nursing director of an intensive care unit in New Jersey. We asked how he sustains his mind, body, and spirit in critical care. Here’s what he told us:

“I spread out my shifts.”

Michael F. Kirk, MSN, RN, CNML

Not every employer allows it, but Mike swears by the benefits of 8-hour – rather than 12-hour – shifts. It lets him live a healthier, more balanced life, he said, noting he’s heard similar feedback from other nurses. “Spreading out shorter shifts isn’t as efficient as three twelves a week, but it’s been a game-changer for my dietary habits, my sleep, my whole household, and the quality of care I deliver at work.”

“I make sure I have my equipment before going in.”

Mike encourages fellow nurses to gather equipment before entering patient rooms – a simple but powerful tip he got from a mentor years back. “When you enter a patient’s room and realize you forgot something, it’s frustrating, wastes time, and inconveniences other people. I started deliberately taking inventory of equipment before walking in. Those few seconds also give me a moment to collect myself and refocus.”

“I got involved.”

The thought of spending more time at work deters some nurses from participating in governance committees and other workplace opportunities. But Mike has noticed – in himself and other ICU nurses – benefits from moving from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat. “Now that I’m an active participant in things like policy change and decisions related to hospital culture, I feel more engaged, and frankly, just happier, even when circumstances are tough,” he said.

“I lift less.”

ICU nurse resources are often lacking, contributing to musculoskeletal injuries that are common among caregivers required to turn, move, and lift patients. Mike described the relief he and his team have experienced since their hospital started using HoverMatt SPU– breathable products which reduce the force needed to move a patient by an astounding 80 to 90%. HoverTech’s airflow technology makes a 300-pound patient feel more like 30 to 60 pounds. The HoverMatt can be left beneath patients for extended periods, without risk of pressure injury. “The HoverMatt has been a game-changer,” Kirk says. “Definitely ask management for this resource if you don’t have it already.”

“I never skip bedside shift reports.”

Kirk also attributes job satisfaction to something that might seem counterintuitive: Completing bedside reports with incoming nurses at the end of every shift, even if it means working later than scheduled.

“Going through the meds, looking at pumps, turning the patient, checking for signs of pressure injuries, and just taking the time for that proper bedside handoff – even though I’m exhausted and eager to get home at the end of a shift, bedside shift reports let me breathe easier once I do clock out.”

“I read doctors’ progress notes.”

Continuing education doesn’t have to happen in a classroom – and can improve job performance and outlook. “I read doctors’ progress notes whenever I can. Why’d they order that lab work? What are they thinking? It’s a free education that adds up to tremendous knowledge over time, and helps me understand my patients better,” Kirk says.

“I learned how people – including me – communicate.”

Mike took the DISC profile test years back. It’s a behavior assessment tool designed to help improve teamwork, communication, and workplace productivity. The results helped him understand not only his own communication style, but those around him. “I used to think people who were direct or harsh were trying to be difficult,” he said. “Once I learned about different communication types, I realized that more often than not, it’s just their way of getting something done. I’ve been amazed at how DISC has helped me become more effective and sympathetic at work.”

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram of Personality are other popular resources for learning what makes you and others tick.

Want to keep these tips fresh? Download our FREE one-page critical care crib sheet. For more resources and education about safe patient handling, reach out to HoverTech.