Monday, 2 June 2014

A Pocketful of Feelings

We have been delighted to host the Emotions Seminar Series. Jessica MacLaren, the most recent speaker, provides those who weren't able to attend with an insight into her research on mental health nurses experiences of managing work-related emotions.

Emotions are an essential part of nursing. Nurses look after people in conditions of great suffering. They must both respond to the emotions of their patients, and also manage their own emotions so that their patients feel safe and cared for. But how do nurses actually achieve this?

My research examined how mental health nurses manage their feelings through supervision. In supervision a nurse meets with his/her supervisor to reflect on his/her work and get advice and support from the supervisor. The mental health nurses who I interviewed told me that supervision helped them to express and process difficult emotions which were brought up by their clinical practice. In this regard supervision was a very different experience to other parts of the nurses’ work in the health service.

In day-to-day work nurses described a “macho” culture, in which they were expected to cope with whatever situations they might encounter. As one nurse said, there is an attitude of “just get on with it, no-one’s died”. This means that it is difficult for nurses to even admit that they might need support. Another nurse told me that she felt unable to ask for supervision to help her process her work experiences, because colleagues would regard this as an admission of failure.

In contrast to this macho coping culture, good supervision works on the basis of encouraging emotional openness. If the nurse has difficult emotions brought up through working with a client it is important that s/he be able to acknowledge and process them so that s/he can work more productively with his/her client. Being able to reflect on emotions in this way may also help nurses to avoid burn-out. The nurses I interviewed told me that even just knowing they would be having supervision in a few weeks’ time helped them to cope better. One nurse explained that supervision was “like a pocket” she could put difficult emotions into, until she could explore them with support from her supervisor.

My research suggests that when it is done well, supervision can be enormously helpful for nurses, who balance the competing demands of working in an emotionally sensitive way with their clients, against maintaining their own wellbeing in emotionally suppressive working culture.

Contact Jessica by email.  

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