Nurses and Learned Helplessness
I remember a study done way back in the 1960’s that has always stuck with me. I learned about it by taking a course in abnormal psychology.
It was called “learned helplessness,” and how it went was that the scientist took sets of three rats to study. These rats were put in a cage with a metal plate on the floor of each feeding station.
The first rat was put into the cage, fed, as usual, and ate without any problems. She ate and thrived.
But in the second cage, the rat was given an electric shock each time he lowered his head to eat.
Then the third rat was given an electric shock some of the time, and not at other times.
The most interesting thing I found out about their reactions was that both the rats who were never given shocks, and the rats who were shocked all the time managed to eat and thrive.
It was only the rats who received the shocks intermittently who froze, wouldn’t eat, failed to thrive and eventually starved.
Now, you ask, what has that got to do with Nursing?
It used to be the many “thank you’s” from the patients were a break from the shock of a shouting doctor or administrators. Used to be that nurses graduated from school with the fervent hope that they could really help some people and even save a few lives. Used to be it was all worth it because even with lousy self-esteem, a nurse had to feel better when the patients felt better and you knew it was because of you. And to top all of that off, sometimes the doctors even thanked you and made you feel great because they appreciated you.
But now that Wall Street owns most of the hospitals and they run on corporate bottom line budgeting rather than a healing model, nurses are in trouble. Most hospitals keep the nursing staff short so that they have much less time to relate and interact with patients. Patients are less happy with their care, and so there are fewer “thank you’s.”
Nurses are now going to be mandated to get more education in order to be able to handle the responsibility for the tasks that they will be expected to accomplish. We’ll have more to do, more paperwork to be sure we cover the corporate liability, and less connection to the patients.
So, as I study it, I can see there’s more low level constant shock, not so much intermittent shock, and little or no just rewards. So maybe getting even more used to less satisfaction, having less expectation, will become the norm. It will be better cause it will feed you–you won’t starve. But then again, the young women or men who go into nursing won’t be on a hero’s journey, won’t be looking to make the world a better place, won’t complain about the shocking conditions.
Or maybe each of us has to come up with a new model of nursing that reflects what we need to help our patients heal, and then all of us email our organizations to see what they can and cannot do. That would be a start.