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Handling Stress
"I Made a Mistake!"
How nurses can get beyond the goof-up.

Nurses are human—we all make mistakes. But knowing how to deal with mistakes is what will make you a better nurse. Despite what your fears tell you, it is possible to live through, and benefit from, a mistake. Here’s how:

Avoid mistakes in the first place.
This is a statement of the obvious, but it’s better to avoid mistakes than to learn how to deal with them. So stay focused and don’t rush. Remember the basics you learned in nursing school; you’re better prepared than you think. Trust your instincts and use common sense. Ask for help when you need it. Get over your fear of looking stupid if you ask a question—because it’s smart. Especially during your first few years, you need to double- and triple-check everything.

Don’t cover it up.
If you do make a mistake, very simply, don’t cover it up. Immediately report it to your preceptor or supervisor – and rectify it. If someone tells you what you should have done or reprimands you, don’t get defensive. You’ll benefit from listening. If you can learn from the situation, you’ll know how to avoid letting the same thing happen again. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Everybody’s human.

Also, keep in mind that the patient is your first priority. If you cover up a mistake, you could be jeopardizing patient care and safety—and even your employer’s reputation. There could be legal issues involved, as well.

Don’t blame others.
When someone in authority comes in and asks who made the mistake, it’s easy for a nurse to blame another nurse. Shifting blame is a classic defense mechanism that humans use when they feel threatened. But you have to own your mistakes, learn from them, and move forward. That’s how you grow and become a better person. Each of us should be a work of art in progress.

On the other end, if a nurse is ever falsely blamed, he should stand up for himself.

Talk it out.
I know a nurse who made a mistake at work. It did not result in harm to the patient, but she had a great deal of difficulty getting over it. She carried a huge amount of guilt around with her. I recommended that she speak to some competent, experienced nurses about it--people she could trust and who would be able to reassure her.

Sometimes you really have to talk to another nurse. Your spouse or a friend might say, “Oh, don’t worry about it.” They mean well, but they don’t really understand what could have happened. Nurses have a unique understanding of other nurses. That’s why so many nurses forge such close relationships with each other. You speak the same language. They might even say, “You know, the same thing happened to me once.” And that helps to put things into perspective—nurses need to know they’re not alone.

Also, don’t rule out professional help. It’s not common for nurses to need it, but sometimes people have trouble keeping things in perspective. If something happens and you can’t work through something, there’s nothing wrong with getting help.

Mistakes happen, but don’t make the mistake of not learning from your goof-up. Accept critique, grow from it, and share your experience with others. You might help others avoid the same pitfalls.

Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, has been referred to as the ‘guru’ of career development for nurses. Donna is a professional keynote speaker, author, consultant, and coach. She is author of "Your 1st Year as a Nurse –Making the Transition from Total Novice to Successful Professional" from Three Rivers Press. Her accomplished career combines over 20 years of clinical, managerial and business experience, not to mention her stint as professional singer. She also operates Nurse Connections, a free online newsletter ( Donna’s clinical experience includes emergency and psychiatric nursing. Donna received a diploma in nursing from Holy Name Hospital School of Nursing and holds a BS in Health Care Management from St. Peter’s College and an MA in Corporate and Public Communication from Monmouth University.

Read more Handling Stress articles

10 Responses to ““I Made a Mistake!””

  1. Mr Ian Says:

    A significant topic but I feel the content only skims the surface of the issues that I hear and read about frequently. I think any (decent) nurse would readily admit to mistakes and seek to resolve them in the fashion outlined above. However, there is a far more complex and underlying issue that prevents/deters nurses from doing so and that is namely the ‘blame culture’ that runs rife thru the administrata.
    It is enough to admit to a mistake in itself, especially as a novice, because of the guilt/fear of potential or real harm ensuing. However, the consequences of admitting to such errors still provokes a fear of becoming “employment-challenged” when some DoN or manager reacts to is in a malevolent way.
    Do nurse managers now work from the premise that “an error shared is an error repaired” or still from the edict of “an error shared is best dealt with by writing up the nurse and covering your own butt in case it happens again”?

  2. christian Says:

    this article helped me a lot from what im going through.I made a mistake.fortunately there was no harm that happened to the patient.God Bless Us All!

  3. LizFeelsGood Says:

    I have just started working new area and made a (pretty stupid) mistake at work and damaged a piece of equipment. I immediately reported it to the senior nurse on duty and called maintenance to come and repair the damage.

    The really suprising thing is that I have subsquently been repeatedly praised – maintenace even wrote a compliement about me to administration because apparently (according to the maintenace guy and the senior nurse) I am the first person to actually own up to making a mistake which damaged equipment rather than just trying to hide the damage so as to avoid being blamed.

  4. tracy Says:

    I’ve made a great many mistakes, none the same twice, none that I covered up, none that resulted in patient harm. I was asked first to change departments, because my orientation was not going as quickly as they hoped even with extensions; then asked to resign from the whole hospital. I have been nursing for about a year and a half. My mentors there are saying, “Don’t worry” too. Well, too bad, I’ve never left a job under a cloud before, and I’m worrying. “Oh you just haven’t found your niche yet”. At what point do I say, well, I guess I’m not a nurse?

  5. Amira Says:

    To LizfeelsGood
    very pleased to hear about you being praised for admitting your mistake ,I wish this managerial culture prevail for the best and sake of our patients and hospitals as well as reducing stress during work.

  6. Susie Says:

    Nurses might “speak the same language”, but as for closeness; I have yet to truely see that in nursing. Where I work I have witnessed nurses who gossip, lie, backstab, and take great joy in pointing out each others mistakes. Some act nice to each others faces and the minute their backs are turned they act like they can’t stand one another and are cutting them down as nurses. As for the nurse supervisors and DON’s, it all depends on which nurse made the mistake, as to their course of action. Nurses do not show the same compassion for their co-workers, as they do for their patients they care for. This is not how I thought nursing would be.

  7. ampee Says:

    projection is an immature defence mechanism.
    we all commit mistakes. we must be conscentious. right attitude is what nursing is all about.. yeah, skill is vital too but i guess it’s just secondary.

  8. JD Says:

    I have experienced all of the above statements. It has not changed since I have been in this line of work for the better part of 20 yrs. I do not know why some people do what they do, esp. when it only hurts others, and doesn’t really benefit anyone. This is just mean spirited.
    I am a male in what is, obviously, a female dominated field. I am ok with being in the minority, I entered this line of work for alot of the same reasons that alot of others entered into it and also just wanted to make a living and live life. I didn’t sign on for all the other stuff we have all encountered. Look ladies we’ve all heard it’s a man’s world, well this is your world, and look what it has become. The reason that most men’s dominated fields are at least better paying, is because they stick together dispite many of the same issues that occur in this one. Not to over simplify, but when your in the same boat everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction. Only the foolish would do otherwise, and if they refuse to do this then you can ” run ’em off ” as I have heard so many times over the yrs, not when they first get started as newbies or new employees. Not ” eating our young ” and doing the multitude of things that happens in our profession with out provacation or significant reason.
    The biggest problem I see with nursing are nurses themselves. These are not sexist remarks, I have heard countless times how ” women don’t like working with women “. So if you ain’t gonna fix the problem then quit bitchin’ about it.
    It’s ashamed when you get in the frame of mind of, ” when the place goes to the dogs… let the dogs have it “

  9. Long timer Says:

    Ms.Cardillo needs to get a grip. I have been reading her advice for years, mostly “feel the joy” – read something relevant to the problem of errors. You can start with Suzanne Gordon’s “Nursing – Against the Odds” by the way, visit her website, Ms. Gordon is a hugh supporter of nurses. Also visit the Robert Wood Johnson’s website – there are many great studies, info. from pilot projects and articles about nursing there including some about the “horizontal violence” discribed above. Incidentally, TJC is now taking a closer look at civility in the workplace. As well,all of us need to write well.

  10. rondodondo Says:

    Bottom line……..every nurse male or female is going to make a med error or some type of mistake plain and simple, and anyone who ever says they have NEVER had a mistake is either a robot, or a liar. The basic thing you have to remember is that we pass thousands and thousands of meds per year so if you look at it logically, the sheer numbers of med’s passed increases your probabbility of making an error. The good thing though, is that the actual percentage of errors is so small based on the numbers of meds dispensed it’s practically non-existent. I’ll bet it’s less than 1/10th of 1% per year….if that. P.S. the nurse Mgr. and DON are not your friends and will toss you under the bus in a heartbeat esp. if it means they might lose THEIR job.

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