UI study focuses on how nurses can best cope with unpleasant patients

IOWA CITY — Nurses are in short supply and high demand in Iowa, and a new study from the University of Iowa looks at ways nurses can overcome some of the things that cause them stress.

Study co-author Amy Colbert, a UI professor of management and entrepreneurship, says nurses are under mounting pressure from patients and others who treat them poorly, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19.  “When they had difficult interactions with patients or patients’ families, sometimes that really hit them in terms of their self-worth,” Colbert says. “They felt as though they weren’t good at their job.”

Through the study, Colbert surveyed hundreds of nurses and asked how they managed to cope with uncivil behavior from patients — coincidentally, the ones who benefit from the nurses’ work.  “The nurses who were able to reframe, remember that the profession is just a challenging profession, and they thought about the purpose of their work, and were able to think about this as not a positive experience for them in the moment, it was a self-sacrifice for them,” Colbert says, “but they were able to focus on that ultimate purpose of their work, which helped them more positively reframe the interaction.”

Some nurses were able to boost their own confidence after bad experiences, while others encountered greater success at rebounding when they turned to other nurses. “We found that even nurses who reframed didn’t always have positive outcomes unless they had a team who was doing the same thing,” Colbert says. “So the supportive team around them helped them not only reframe the interaction, but also then cope with that throughout their day, and ultimately, be better performers than if they didn’t have that team around them.”

Knowing nurses experience a great deal of stress at work, the study was launched with the intent of finding ways to relieve that stress, while Colbert says they also work with multiple hospitals.  “We don’t just recommend that nurses reframe these negative interactions, but that hospital systems do everything that they can to ensure that nurses are treated well,” Colbert says. “My first recommendation for those who run the systems would be to try to reduce the negative interactions to the extent possible.”

Most of us face stress in our jobs and Colbert, who spends much of her time in university classrooms, has also been subject to ridicule. “Students sometimes are stressed and have negative reactions, and it’s helpful for me to keep in mind their situations, first of all, and have some empathy for that,” Colbert says, “but the ultimate purpose that we’re all here to serve. I think teachers and doctors and the folks who serve us every day in stores all could take a note from the study.”

Colbert surveyed people in other professions, from accounting to retail, and found those workers had similar reactions to encounters with unpleasant customers or clients — and suggests they, too, could find relief through reframing.