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‘I Needed A Drink When I Got Home’

Nurses Turn To Alcohol To Cope With Stress Of The Job

nurse scrubs with flask illustration
John Nichols/WPR

There were plenty of nights when at the end of her 12-hour shift as a nurse in Madison, Ryann felt like she needed a glass of wine — or two — to wind down.

Whether it was the taxing hours, the increasing demands of charting or the traumatic medical scenes she watched unfold before her, the job and adrenaline that comes with it was hard to shake. That glass of wine after every shift became routine — one she knew wasn’t particularly healthy.

“I don’t know what light went off in my head, but part of it was like I realized that I was drinking every night that I got home. And for Wisconsin, it wasn’t a lot. It was like maybe two glasses of wine, but … I needed a drink when I got home and that’s not a good way to live your life,” said Ryann, whose last name isn’t being used to protect her privacy.

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Ryann’s story isn’t unique. Nurses across the country report high levels of stress related to their jobs. A 2016 study on the impact of stress and the ability to cope among nurses found that 92 percent of those surveyed had moderate-to-very high levels of stress. Seventy-eight percent of nurses slept less than eight hours a night and 22 percent were classified as binge drinkers.

“There’s just so much that needs to get done … and you don’t really get to connect with patients as human beings at that point and that’s not why most people go into nursing,” Ryann said.

“When you have so many tasks that you just become this automaton … you don’t have time to educate your patients or really get to know them and understand why they’re having the problems they’re having,” she said. “It’s frustrating and it’s like a moral injury every day that you go to work.”

That sense of moral injury, along with repeated, on-the-job trauma can make nurses experience something called compassion fatigue — an indifference or inability to provide compassionate care due to the constant exposure to other people’s pain and suffering while feeling powerless to make a difference.

“Once you’re home … (I’ve) still got that adrenaline pumping in my body, I’m stressed out. You know, what do you do? Well, I’m going to have a glass of wine as soon as I step into my house, pour myself a glass of wine then like sit down and try to relax and kind of blow off some steam from the day,” Ryann said.

Gina Dennik-Champion is the CEO of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, a nonprofit lobbying group that represents Wisconsin’s 80,000 registered nurses. She said aside from workplace stress, nurses often don’t spend enough time taking care of themselves.

“We have our nursing code of ethics where we are responsible for our patients and for, you know, taking care of our profession, one another, as well as taking care of ourselves, and I think nurses sometimes really fall short on taking care of themselves because we take care of everybody else first,” Dennik-Champion said.

While workplace stress is well documented and hospitals across the country are promoting workplace wellness, a shortage of nurses and a culture that celebrates strength often means when nurses do need help, they don’t ask.

The ‘Supernurse’

Linsey Steege, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing, studies how to improve the health, safety and performance of health professionals. Her work points to what she calls the “supernurse” phenomenon.