Nursing Realities: Challenges, Strikes, and Tips for Aspiring Nurses

Nurses serve as the backbone of healthcare, providing crucial patient care, advocacy, and educational roles that complement and augment the work of other healthcare professionals. In fact, their role is so significant that it can, and often does, affect the overall quality of care that patients receive.

When the Covid-19 pandemic overloaded hospitals, urgent care centers, and nearly every doctor’s office in late 2019 and 2020, nurses with every type of training and background were called to join the front-line defense. 

Nurses joined doctors and other healthcare workers to support severely ill patients struggling to breathe, often with limited and insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and no vaccine available. They worked crushingly long hours, quarantined from loved ones in their homes, and held phones as dying patients said goodbye to their families. Many got sick, and the International Council of Nurses estimates (conservatively) that 115,000 healthcare workers died of Covid globally. 

The issues during the pandemic around safety, support, burnout, and more helped prompt numerous nursing strikes in various states in 2022 and 2023. These actions symbolize the collective voice of nurses advocating for better pay, improved working conditions, more time off, and enhanced mental health support. 

Despite these challenges, nursing can be a rewarding career choice for those committed to patient care.

Discover the realities of being a nurse and insights for those considering the field or starting their nursing careers.

Is Being a Nurse Hard? The Reality of the Nursing Profession

Navigating the nursing field is an intricate balance of physical stamina, emotional resilience, and mental agility. Nurses often witness patients facing life-changing situations or dealing with loss, and providing empathetic care can be emotionally taxing. At the same time, the workload can be intense, with long shifts and multitasking demands, Stewart Parnacott told He’s a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) at IRX Anesthesia in Houston, Texas. Here’s a realistic look at what nurses face on the job.

Physical Demands

Nurses often work long hours, including night shifts, weekends, and holidays. Their work is physically strenuous, with most of the day spent on their feet attending to patients, administering treatments, or performing procedures. 

Emotional Challenges

Nurses also face significant emotional challenges. They’re involved in some of the most intimate and vulnerable moments of people’s lives, from the joy of childbirth to the pain of a terminal diagnosis: “The emotional toll of witnessing suffering and loss can be immense, leading to compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion,” Shandra Scruggs, registered labor and delivery nurse and doula, told

Patients who are in pain and experience fear or uncertainty about their condition can also threaten, shout, and harass nurses, Steven Polega shares. He serves as chief nursing officer at the University of Michigan Health-West and recalls his days as a registered nurse in an emergency department: “The most difficult thing about being a nurse is that this behavior and the abuse nurses take has almost been normalized as just part of the job. Nurses and healthcare workers are also five times more likely to be assaulted at work than any other profession,” says Polega.   

Mental Pressure

Nurses constantly juggle tasks and make critical decisions that affect patients’ health and well-being. 

“Nursing is a demanding profession, and nurses often face heavy workloads, long hours, and high levels of stress. Staffing shortages can result in nurses being stretched thin, and having to juggle multiple responsibilities simultaneously,” says Scruggs. “The pressure to provide safe and effective care can be overwhelming, leading to burnout and impacting the nurses’ physical and mental well-being.”

This pressure can accumulate and, just as nurses often advocate for their patients, they sometimes have to stand up for themselves to get the compensation, benefits, resources, and work environment needed to do their jobs well. At times this requires self-advocacy and strikes.

Why Nurses Strike for Better Working Conditions

Nurses might go on strike for various reasons, often related to work conditions, pay, and patient care. Such strikes can reflect the challenging work environment nurses sometimes face, including long hours, understaffing, and inadequate resources. Strikes are a method for nurses to advocate for their rights and draw attention to issues that affect patient safety and quality of care.

“Nurses go on strike to advocate for improved patient care, safer working conditions, fair compensation, and better staffing ratios. These strikes highlight the dedication and commitment of nurses to ensure quality care for their patients. It’s essential for those entering the profession to be aware of these labor issues and the collective voice of nurses in advocating for positive changes,” says Parnacott. 

While nursing can be hard, it’s a challenge worth fighting for when considering how rewarding it can feel to contribute to a patient’s healing.

Why Nursing Can Be a Rewarding Career

Ask any nurse what keeps them returning to work despite the challenging aspects of the job, and they’ll likely say it’s the chance to make a big impact on their patients’ lives. Nurses advocate for their patients, comfort them, and are there during the healing journey. 

“You have the ability every day as a nurse to take a traumatic and sometimes once-in-a-lifetime tragedy and make things better,” says Polega. “We are not always able to save everyone, but you can do everything in your power to do so, or at the least lessen someone’s pain and suffering and make sure that they can pass away with dignity and not alone.”

This commitment to patients’ well-being is ingrained in nurses’ oath at their pinning ceremonies.

Oaths and Ethics in Nursing

Rising nurses recite an oath at graduation or pinning ceremonies—a solemn promise about their ethical obligations and professional conduct. This tradition can be traced back to the “Nightingale Pledge,” named after Florence Nightingale, a pioneer in modern nursing. It was designed to inspire new nurses about their ethical responsibilities, much as the Hippocratic Oath does for physicians. Over the years, different versions of the oath have been used, reflecting the evolving healthcare dynamics, but the pledge’s essence remains the same.

This pledge serves as a guiding principle in a nurse’s professional life. It reinforces the commitment to provide high-quality patient care, respect their individuality and privacy, and uphold the highest ethical standards. It underlines the nurses’ commitment to life, health, and the alleviation of suffering, thereby shaping their approach to patient care.

In practice, the oath influences a nurse’s behavior in many ways. It compels them to maintain professional competency, uphold patient confidentiality, and always act in the patient’s best interest. It is a constant reminder of the moral and ethical responsibilities attached to nursing. When nurses don’t uphold these responsibilities and standards of conduct, disciplinary action can happen, or depending on the severity and number of offenses, they can get fired.

Reasons for Termination in Nursing: Understanding and Avoiding Pitfalls

Nursing is a profession of high responsibility, requiring adherence to stringent standards of care and professional conduct. Lapses can occur, and certain actions can lead to getting fired. Here are some common reasons:

Breach of Patient Care Standards

Nurses are expected to provide high-quality care to all patients. Any negligent or substandard care that potentially or actually harms a patient can lead to termination. This can include medication errors, failure to monitor a patient’s condition, or not responding effectively to a patient’s changing health status.

Violation of Patient Privacy

Nurses have access to sensitive patient information. Violating patient confidentiality, including unauthorized access, disclosure, or misuse of patient information, is a serious offense that can result in job termination.

Professional Misconduct

Professional misconduct, such as inappropriate behavior with patients or colleagues, abuse, or harassment, can lead to dismissal. It’s crucial to maintain professional boundaries and respectful behavior at all times.

Non-compliance with Policies and Procedures

Nurses are required to comply with their institution’s policies and procedures. Non-compliance, such as failure to follow infection control procedures or incorrect documentation, can result in termination.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a serious issue that can impair a nurse’s ability to perform their duties and potentially harm patients. If a nurse is found to be working under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it often leads to immediate dismissal.

To avoid these pitfalls, nurses must adhere to the Nursing Oath’s principles and adhere strictly to their institution’s policies and procedures. They should maintain high standards of patient care, respect patient confidentiality, behave professionally, and continue learning to stay updated with best practices in the field.

If a nurse is unsure about a situation or policy, they should seek guidance from a mentor or supervisor. Remember that nursing isn’t just about individual tasks; it’s about being part of a healthcare team dedicated to ensuring patient safety and well-being. Learning from seasoned nurses and other healthcare professionals will help nurses learn the ropes faster and cope with being overwhelmed.

What to Expect as a New Nurse: Tips and Advice for New Nurses

Transitioning from nursing school to practicing as a nurse can be exciting and overwhelming. These practical tips can help a nurse navigate this significant career phase.

Patience is Key

The first few months of a nurse’s career will largely involve adjusting to their new environment. Nurses should familiarize themselves with the workflow, hospital protocols, and procedures. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and seek guidance from more experienced colleagues.

Importance of Continuing Education

The learning doesn’t end after nursing school. Nurses should remain open to continuous learning and take advantage of the opportunities to attend workshops, trainings, or pursue further studies. These will enhance their skills and keep them updated with the latest developments in the field.

Coping with Stress

Nursing can be a high-stress profession. Developing effective stress management strategies such as regular exercise, meditation, a balanced diet, and plenty of rest is crucial. Nurses should consider seeking support from mentors, joining a support group, or engaging in counseling services if they feel overwhelmed.

Time Management

Efficient time management is crucial in nursing. Nurses should prioritize tasks, delegate when necessary, and stay organized. They could use planners or digital tools to track their duties and appointments.

Deal with Difficult Patients

At times, nurses might encounter patients who are difficult or uncooperative. In such situations, nurses should maintain composure and empathize with the patient. Effective communication and conflict-resolution skills can be immensely helpful. It’s helpful for nurses to breathe and tell the patient they need to check on something but will return soon if they feel themselves losing patience. 

Build Relationships with Other Healthcare Workers

Connecting with fellow nurses, mentors, and support groups can provide valuable encouragement, guidance, and shared experiences. A supportive and collaborative work environment can make challenging days more manageable.

“During my first year as a nurse, I vividly remember feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of knowledge and clinical experiences. I wish someone had told me to embrace the learning process and seek guidance from experienced nurses. As a new nurse, it’s essential to understand that mistakes and uncertainties are part of the journey, and seeking support is a strength, not a weakness,” says Parnacott.

Prioritize Self-care

Above all, nurses need to prioritize their physical and mental well-being. Regular breaks, time for relaxation, breathwork and meditation, hobbies, and spending time with loved ones can significantly help maintain a healthy work-life balance and prevent burnout.

“Give 100 percent at work and always focus on the patients and families, but also find ways to care for yourself and have balance away from work. You can be a better caregiver if you take care of yourself,” advises Polega. 

A nurse’s first year will be a steep learning curve, but with resilience, continuous learning, and effective stress management, he or she can navigate this challenging yet rewarding phase. Remember, every experienced nurse was once a beginner, too, and, with time, new nurses will gain confidence and expertise in their role.

Preparing for a Career in Nursing: Insights for Students

Launching a career in nursing requires meticulous preparation of both theoretical education and hands-on training. Here are some insights on how to navigate this journey effectively.

Pursue Quality Education

Education forms the foundation of a nurse’s career. Choose a nursing program offering a comprehensive medical knowledge curriculum and interpersonal skills, ethics, and decision-making. A quality education will equip nurses with the skills needed to thrive in healthcare. Remember that nursing is not just about medical care, but also about patient advocacy, health promotion, and health education.

Engage in Hands-on Training

Theoretical knowledge is vital, but nursing is a hands-on profession. Clinical rotations and internships provide invaluable practical experience and allow nurses to apply classroom learning to real-life situations. They expose nurses to diverse healthcare settings, patient populations, and medical conditions, thereby enriching their learning experience. This is crucial for developing technical skills, critical thinking, and decision-making abilities.

“During my first year as a nurse, I vividly remember the challenges I faced when attempting to start an IV. No matter how hard I tried, it seemed like I couldn’t get it right. For the first six months, I felt frustrated and discouraged every time I encountered a patient who needed an IV line,” recalls Scruggs.

“Looking back, I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to struggle and that it’s a normal part of the learning process. I would have liked to know that nursing is a journey of continuous learning and growth and that mastering skills takes time and practice. Instead of being hard on myself, I needed the reassurance that with patience, persistence, and the support of my team, I would eventually gain the confidence and skill to start IVs successfully.”

Network with Professionals in the Field

Networking with seasoned nurses, faculty, and other healthcare professionals provides insights into the profession and advice that can help nurses early in their careers. Nurses should attend nursing seminars, workshops, and conferences to meet their peers and learn about the latest trends in the field.

Gain Specialty Certifications

For nurses interested in a specific area of nursing, it may be beneficial to consider specialty certifications. These increase nurses’ knowledge and skills and enhance their employability and opportunities for advancement.

Never Stop Learning

The healthcare field is continually evolving. By engaging in lifelong learning, nurses should stay updated with the latest research, treatment protocols, and technology. To do that, pursuing further education, attending workshops, and reading nursing journals are essential.

“I would challenge new nurses to be lifelong learners that continue to push themselves to learn and grow,” says Polega. “Nurses need to know their pharmacology, anatomy, and pathophysiology well. As a nurse you are the constant eyes and ears at the bedside and a valuable member of the healthcare team. Your feedback is critical and you need to always be thinking and communicating to all members of the healthcare team.” 

Preparing for a nursing career requires a blend of quality education, hands-on experience, and emotional preparedness. With a comprehensive approach, nurses can build a strong foundation for a rewarding career in nursing. A nurse’s journey doesn’t end when he or she graduates—it’s just the beginning of a lifelong learning process.

The Bottom Line

Nursing requires a commitment to high-quality care and resolve to navigate through physically demanding tasks, emotionally intense moments, and mentally challenging situations. It’s about balancing compassion with professional detachment and making critical decisions that can significantly impact patients’ lives.

While education lays the foundation for nursing, it’s crucial to complement this theoretical knowledge with practical experience. Clinical rotations, internships, and continuous learning opportunities all contribute to shaping a competent and confident nurse.

The first year as a nurse is particularly challenging, filled with new experiences and steep learning curves. Yet, during this year, the seeds of resilience are sown, and the true value of nursing education and training becomes evident.

To all aspiring nurses, this journey isn’t an easy one. Listen to the experiences of those who walked this path before, and don’t forget the vital role nurses play in the healthcare system. A nurse’s contribution can go beyond healing; those who take on this profession can be a beacon of hope and care for those in their most vulnerable moments.

Sabrina Tillman

Sabrina Tillman

Guest Contributor

Sabrina Tillman has more than 20 years of experience writing, editing, and leading content teams in health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. She’s led digital content strategy and creation for companies such as MyFitnesPal, MapMyFitness, Under Armour, Primal Kitchen, Beachbody,,, Rodale (Running Times), and Hearst magazines.