Nurses Are Some of the Unhealthiest Americans and We Need to Help Change That

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer
Stress, bad nutrition, lack of sleep, and other work-related conditions are making nurses some of the unhealthiest people, according to a new study. The American Nurses Association has launched a challenge to help address this industry-wide issue. (Photo: Getty Images)

Saturday, May 6, is National Nurses Day, kicking off the start of National Nurses Week, and this year, the American Nurses Association (ANA) is kicking off the month of May with a grand challenge with the intent of helping nurses not just for one day, one week, one month, or one year, but for years and years to come. The Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation grand challenge seeks to make all Americans healthier by helping those who care for them focus on their own health.

Because here’s the thing: There are 3.6 million nurses in the U.S., yet in every category other than smoking, the health of nurses is worse than that of the average American. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses have the fourth highest rate rate of injuries or illness on the job of all professions — even construction workers. And the often 24/7 demands faced by nurses on the job contributes to the higher likelihood of nurses being overweight, having greater stress, and getting less than the recommended amount of sleep.

Pamela Cipriano, RN, is the president of the ANA and has a PhD in executive nursing administration, an MSN in psychological nursing, and a BSN in nursing — and she inherently understands that when it comes to ANA’s mission of advancing the nursing profession to improve the health of all people, this means including the nurses caring for other people’s health.

After surveying their membership and getting more than 10,000 self-reported responses, Cipriano says that the ANA was troubled to learn that nurses just weren’t as healthy as the general public.

“It’s shocking to us all to have to acknowledge that we’re not as healthy as the average public,” Cipriano tells Yahoo Beauty. “We have a higher body-mass index than the public and are on the high end of being overweight. We get less sleep than the average public. We have a much lower intake of fruits and vegetables than the average public. And one of the most striking identifiers is stress — nurses reported having two times as much workplace stress as those in the average public.”

And the concerning data doesn’t end there. Cipriano shares that 50 percent of the respondents to the survey reported musculoskeletal injuries on the job, and 25 percent reported having been assaulted at work. And 42 percent said they feel at risk for injury because of the kinds of literal heavy lifting required by their work.

“We have acknowledged that nursing is dangerous work,” Cipriano says. “It’s a serious concern.”

Which led them to think that it “really would be wonderful if we could help improve the health of nurses so we can improve the health of the nation.”

Enter the grand challenge, an initiative designed to positively affect not just individual nurses but whole communities and, indeed, the whole country.

“This is a very audacious undertaking,” says Cipriano. “We want to make a major social change. It just makes sense: If you improve the lives of nurses, it helps everyone. Nurses touch everyone’s lives — they impact what happens in families, schools, churches, communities, and everyone who comes in contact with caregivers.”

Cipriano explains that the grand challenge is an opportunity for nurses as well as for all the people nurses care for and all the people who care about nurses. On its website, the ANA has created a platform for any organization or individual to sign up, announcing their own commitment to better, healthier living as a result of the grand challenge.

“We know individuals love to compete and see real value in helping their co-workers get healthy as well,” she says. “We expect people to engage in one or more of five areas to improve health: activity, rest, nutrition, quality of life, and safety.”

A community of nurses — whether at a doctor’s office or a hospital, or an academic setting — might commit to walking a certain number of steps, committing a certain number of minutes a week to aerobic activity, or setting up a walking group as a way of heeding the challenge’s call. Or teams might want to commit to eating a certain number of fruits and vegetables or even creating a food log to help them make healthy eating choices.

Participating workplaces can also engage in the challenge by ensuring employees get the training and support they need to help avoid injuries and workplace violence. Employers can also see the challenge as an opportunity to think of ways to help their nurses better deal with stress, whether that means creating break rooms or areas for rest, systems for reporting workplace stress, and helping provide resources with tools to better manage stress.

Everyone can do something as easy as trying to get more sleep by trying to go to bed 15 minutes earlier for multiple nights in a row.

These are just some of the suggestions the ANA is providing its members, with even more tools and resources available online to help individuals and groups create and act on their own responses to the grand challenge.

“The public has very little opportunity to soak in what a nurse really does in many circumstances,” Cipriano notes. “A hospital patient sees nurses addressing pain, changing dressings, administering medication, all usually at a time of high stress for the person and their family. So they don’t have time to think, Wow — these are all of the great things my nurse is doing. They don’t get to see all the other commitments and responsibilities and patients a nurse has.”

Which is why we all need to make sure that nurses get the care they need — and time to focus on their own health — too.

With this month just being the kick-off for the grand challenge, the ANA hopes that this multi-year project will continue indefinitely, continually prompting nursing environments to set their own challenges to help nurses live healthy lives.

“Nurses often put others ahead of themselves,” Cipriano says. “But in order to do your best, you have to be healthy. We hope to see nurses gain additional understanding and education to see how they can help themselves and model for all the communities they serve that they really care about their own health.”

She concludes: “Nurses are very influential in their communities, in schools and churches and other civic organizations. We want nurses’ voices transmitted to their families, friends, community groups. Everywhere nurses go, they make an impact. Healthy nurses have even greater influence because they are seen as credible role models. The healthier anyone in a health profession is, the better they can encourage others to be healthy — so that helps move the needle to help America be more healthy.”

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