MythBusted: We Are Not Our Uniforms

Sherry Lynn Jones, EdD, RN will be presenting, “MythBusted: We Are Not Our Uniforms” at the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation’s 14th World Congress on Stress, Trauma, and Coping on May 6, 2017, in Baltimore, MD. The following is an excerpt from that workshop. For more information see http://icisfworldcongress.org/.

Who am I?

To answer that question, I must look down. If I am in scrubs, I am a nurse. If I’m in casual clothes, I’m Sherry, Mom, or Grandma. If wearing girl shoes, I am Dr. Jones and presenting at a workshop, or assisting with crisis interventions.

Each of us wears different hats and different uniforms. Defining who we are changes over time, place, and circumstance. Role clarity is extremely important.

When there is ambiguity on the job, our stress levels rise, and we cannot think clearly or operate as effectively. Researchers document the difficulties nurses have when they are not sure of their roles, responsibilities, or how they fit into the workplace hierarchy. If two people walk into a patient’s room and one is wearing a lab coat, the assumption will be that s/he is the person of authority (and probably the doctor). The uniform matters.

The uniform that distinguishes our position as healthcare providers also delivers protection, a type of trauma armor. When people touch us emotionally, we can draw from our problem-coping strategies and follow protocols to get through tasks. When we remove the uniform, we can physically and symbolically shower our troubles away down the drain.

The power of the uniform follows us outside our workplace. The publics’ expectations differ between students, full staff, management, and advanced practice nurses. In each of those roles, we operate under our licenses, protocols, organizational directives, and standards of care. But what about when we are in uniform outside our jobs?

Wearing scrubs to the store after work increases personal visibility. People watch how you carry yourself, what you buy, your attitude toward other people. Nursing is a caring profession, and civilians have expectations of you when you are in uniform.

You represent an entire profession. I remember students at my college complaining about the student nurses who ate junk food. The other students held nursing students to a higher standard. The public perceptions of what the uniform meant, and how those who wore those uniforms should act, contributed to how we behaved when wearing them.

What we need to remember is that we are not our uniforms.

The uniform does not protect us from harm. It does not offer comfort when we identify too closely with a patient. Scrubs cannot define us, either, as when we take them off, the person beneath them does not disappear.

Sherry Lynn Jones, EdD, RN, MS, FAAETS, EMTP (Ret.)

We are not our uniforms.

I implore you to clarify what the uniform means to you at work, at home, and how it contributes to your self-image and identity. Think about how you can use the uniform to remind yourself of your value and contribution as part of the most caring profession. However, remember that at the end of the day, you can take the scrubs off, and you are still there.

Some people use rituals for the time between work and home. One nurse touches the frame of her car window as she travels over railroad tracks, leaving her stress at that physical place before reconnecting with her family. Another nurse looks at the lakeshore she passes each day on her way home, takes a deep breath, and blows her stress out over the lake to the horizon.

A third nurse leaves her shoes in the garage. Those germy shoes are not allowed in the house, and neither are the obligations she carried on her shoulders throughout her 12-hour shift.

You are not your uniform. Leave the job outside. And then take care of yourself.

Sherry Lynn Jones, EdD,RN, MS, FAAETS, EMTP (Ret.) is author of a “Trauma Junkie” anthology available through http://sherryjonesmayo.com.

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