Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask Before Assisting Others

By: Jean Ellen Zavertnik, DNP, RN, CNE, CHSE, Clemson University and Susan Gross Forneris, PhD, RN, CNE, CHSE-A, FAAN, National League for Nursing

The topic of resilience seems to be coming up everywhere these days. Recently the AACN (2020) announced a call to action for academic nurse leaders to promote practices to enhance optimal well-being, resilience, and suicide prevention in nursing students throughout the United States.

But how can we as faculty help our students unless we take care of ourselves first? As Jennifer D’Abreau stated in a letter to the editor of Academic Medicine (2019), “Since residents must take care of themselves prior to being able to help their peers, physicians might adopt advice from the airlines: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.” This would apply to nurses as well.

Change and disruption have been constant in our lives over the last several months. No one is immune to the strain and stress. But how we adapt to life changes impacts the quality of our work and how we interact with others. The term resiliency is defined as “the ability to recover from perceived adverse or changing situations, through a dynamic process of adaptation, influenced by personal characteristics, family and social resources, and manifested by positive coping control and integration (Caldeiera & Timmins, 2018). Recent literature (Keener et al., 2020) suggests that resilience is impacted not only by how we perceive our quality of life, but by how we perceive the quality of the work we do.

We were interested in learning about what helped nurse educators make what they perceived as a successful pivot to remote teaching. We reached out to our own NLN Simulation Leaders and asked them to share how they managed their own oxygen masks amid the challenges over the last six months. Here are just a few of the responses we received: 

  1. Keeping connected with the students by offering evening sessions, support for navigating the college experience, and just being available
  2. Finding faculty development and tech training for online instruction to enhance current skills
  3. Receiving acknowledgment by university leadership as a valued faculty member
  4. Making use of resources provided by the university to support teaching role  
  5. Using humor; lightening a stressful situation.
  6. Finding simple inspiration in hopeful phrases written on tee-shirts worn by faculty colleagues to remind [us] that flexibility is a key to managing day-to-day variations from the norm: “Its fine. I’m fine. Everything is fine.”

Reflecting on the last example above, number 6, the word inspiration stands out. Is there a connection between resilience and inspiration? Perhaps the two words complement each other? While on the one hand, resilience is about the ability to recover and adapt, inspiration is about finding ways to innovate and adapt. Can resilience be found in our search for inspiration? Does seeking inspiration help us to be resilient?  

In his interesting book Failed It (2016), author Erik Kessels describes the hidden successes found in failure that can help us reframe how we move forward. A chapter titled “Fail to Find Inspiration” discusses using failure to spark inspiration. Herein lies the connection: One artist, Kessel tells us, uses the process of Photoshop, commonly used to cover up mistakes and hide imperfections, to turn seemingly perfect images into something more interesting, like, for example, “a rocking chair that thinks it’s a table’ (p. 132). The inspiration is found in taking time to consider mistakes and failures — our own and those of others. Behind the mistake one may find the personal inspiration needed for a new idea, another step, a changed direction. This inspiration sparks reenergized resilience moving forward.

Resilience is an intentional process. Today’s teaching environment challenges each of us, every day. Our ability to seek out ways to adapt, adopt, and innovate is a path to building and maintaining resilience. As an intentional process, it is adjusting our own oxygen mask first before we assist others. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can mentor the next generation of nurses. The support of our institution, administration, our colleagues and family and friends will partially get us through these difficult times. Finding inspiration through an intentional process of adapting, innovating, and reframing will close the loop.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). (2020). A call to action for academic nurse leaders to promote practices to enhance optimal well-being, resilience and suicide prevention in schools of nursing across the U.S. https://www.aacnnursing.org/Portals/42/Downloads/Meetings/2020/ANLC/7-2020-Resolution-For-AACN-Nurse-Wellness-Suicide-Prevention.pdf

Caldeira, S, & Timmins, F. (2016). Resilience: synthesis of concept analyses and contribution to nursing classifications. International Nursing Review, 63(2), 191-199. doi:10.1111/inr.12268

D’Abreau, J.A. (2019). A charge for resident wellness, resilience, and recognition by faculty [Letter to the Editor]. Academic Medicine, 94(4), 457.

Keener, T. A., Hall, K., Wang, K., Hulsey, T., & Piamjariyakul, U. (2020). Relationship of quality of life, resilience, and associated factors among nursing faculty during COVID-19. Nurse Educator. doi.org/10.1097/NNE.0000000000000926

Kessels, E. (2016). Failed it. Phaidon Press.

Wald, H.S., Haramati, A., Bachner, Y.G.,  Urkin, J. (2016). Promoting resiliency for interprofessional faculty and senior medical students: Outcomes of a workshop using mind-body medicine and interactive reflective writing, Medical Teacher, 38 (5), 525-528. doi.org/10.3109/0142159X.2016.1150980

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