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The ICU is a very overwhelming place to start for new ICU nurses. These four pieces of advice for new ICU nurses will help you succeed through your first month on the job.
Are you just starting out in the ICU? Or are you planning to become an ICU nurse in the near future? Even if you are already well into your way through orientation, these tips will save your sanity and help you thrive in this fast-paced job.
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Sanity-Saving Advice For New ICU Nurses
Do more than just get through orientation. With this advice, you can thrive and love your job as an ICU nurse. These are the four most important pieces of advice I can give you as a former ICU nurse myself.
Learn How To Be Assertive
The very first tip I have for you is that you must learn how to be assertive. This means you have to know yourself and learn how to confidently stand up for yourself, even in very nerve-wracking situations.
It’s a fact – being around other ICU nurses and critical care physicians can be intimidating. Things get very serious very quickly. You’ll go from joking at the nurse’s station one minute to saving someone’s life the next.
This can be a little jarring if you have never been around people who can go from joking to matter-of-fact in an instant.
You have to get used to situations like this. It’s perfectly healthy for you to stand up for yourself if you think people are treating you wrong in these situations. If you don’t understand something, ask. You must speak up for yourself, or you will just get trampled on.
My favorite books on assertiveness are linked in my Amazon Storefront.
Lean Into What Is Hard And Scary and Conquer It
Next, stop avoiding the things that scare you and lean into them. The ICU is a very confusing place for new nurses. At some point you will be faced with the things that scare you, it’s better to attack them right away and learn about them early.
Here’s an example of why this is so important and how to do it.
I had a friend who was new to the ICU and was very intimidated by ventilators. He decided to befriend a respiratory therapist and asked to learn more about them. He took the initiative to fill in the knowledge gap that made him nervous.
Then, when he had to use a ventilator, he had confidence and knowledge. It was a game-changer for his job.
That’s what you need to do. Find whatever makes you the most nervous – whether it is talking to doctors or equipment and codes – lean into that.
Conquer this fear during your precepting period when someone is watching behind you and giving you that space to figure things out before you are out on your own.
Do not avoid the things that scare you. Avoidance might get you through the shift but it won’t help you in the long run. You will have to face it eventually if you avoid it for too long, you won’t know how to use it when you have to…
Set Realistic Expectations For Your Development As An ICU Nurse
Next, you need to give yourself grace and allow yourself time to learn it all. This is a really stressful place and it will take you a long time to learn it all.
Lots of people get into ICU as new nurses, thinking that if I just show up and do what my preceptor tells me, then I’ll get through orientation and be fine. I’m going to ace this! Then reality hits them and they feel like a failure because it’s really hard.
The truth is that learning how to be an ICU nurse is incredibly overwhelming. It is intimidating because it has such high stakes. There are patients who are dying, who are coding, and you are responsible for talking to providers and having end-of-life conversations.
It takes time to settle into this highly skilled position. If you can have realistic expectations for your development, it will help you keep your morale high.
I do not expect someone who is starting out in the ICU to know what they are doing in 3 weeks or even 4 weeks.
I know the confusion first-hand. When I started in ICU in 2012, I had 2 years of experience in cardiac med-surg and step-down. I was even a charge nurse, I was so confident that I had this. Boy, was I wrong! When I started in the neuro ICU I felt like a new grad all over again.
That doesn’t mean you weren’t ready for this role. That’s just the natural learning curve for this incredibly complex specialty.
Having realistic expectations will improve your morale. Give yourself grace. Good morale will help you focus on improving on each shift and you will get so much more out of orientation. You’ll be in a better mindset to learn from your mistakes.
Learn While You Are At Home
My last piece of advice for new ICU nurses is to save the bookwork for when you are home. While you are at the hospital, you will need to focus and learn everything as it is happening.
Take time at home to dive deeper into things like medication, mechanism of action, and disease processes so that when you are at the bedside, you are learning things you can only learn at work. You’ll need to learn things like where instruments are and what they are called, among so many other things.
Here’s an excellent example of someone I knew that did this correctly.
I was precepting a new graduate in the neuro ICU. I was impressed with her because even though she wasn’t perfect, she focused on improving every shift. She had to give mannitol one day and was not familiar with it. She went through the motions and safely gave the patient the meds. That night, she went home and read up on mannitol – without being asked to do so. She didn’t have time during the shift to learn about what this medication is, but at home, she read about it so that she’d understand more when she had to give it to another patient.
The new grad who tries to learn everything at work runs out of time at work. There just isn’t time at work. There is just so much you have to learn and there is no way to do it all on the clock.
My Favorite Resources for New ICU Nurses
If you’re brand new, please do NOT go and buy CCRN review material. This is too advanced right now. Please wait until you’re done with orientation and have your mind around everything before you dig into advanced ICU material.
That said, one of my favorite CCRN-prep people has a great handbook for ICU nurses. I recommend purchasing this as a reference guide that you can quickly flip through at the nurse’s station to gain additional context.
I also recommend becoming a member of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. Ask if your employer will reimburse your membership fee! They have a ton of educational material that is beneficial at multiple stages of your ICU career.
I also have an entire information hub specifically geared towards new ICU nurses. You can check that out here. It includes podcasts, videos, blogs, and more.
To learn more about my most comprehensive new ICU nurse resource, read on!
My Ultimate At-Home Resource For New ICU Nurses
Trying to build your confidence as a new ICU nurse?
Breakthrough ICU from FreshRN is a 6-week, online course specifically crafted for brand new ICU nurses who want to get ahead of the game. So that instead of merely surviving orientation, they’re confidently thriving all the way through. With Breakthrough ICU, it’s like we took all of the highlighted info from the nursing textbooks, mixed in our own experience, wisdom, and expertise, and packaged it in a way that it’s tangible, easy to digest and understand, and can be applied to your very next shift. You can start your ICU journey with your head held high (but not too high!) and your heart calm.
When you go into the ICU with the correct attitude and invest in learning while you are at home, you will thrive as a new ICU nurse. Give yourself grace – this is one of the most overwhelming places to start a new job.