4 Ways to Cope With Making Mistakes as a Nurse

Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN
Updated April 26, 2022
    Sometimes the anxiety of making a mistake as a nurse can cause more stress than the job itself. We discuss strategies to cope with making a mistake and how nurses can grow and learn from them.
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    You graduated nursing school, completed orientation, and went out of your way to learn about your nursing specialty in your free time. Congratulations! Now all that’s left to do is worry incessantly about what could go wrong on your shift.

    If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. As a nurse, you will have plenty of obstacles to overcome throughout your career, and your mindset shouldn’t be one of them.

    We cover tools to cope with the fear of making a mistake as a nurse — taken from the wisdom of experienced nurses who have been there before.

    4 Ways to Cope With Making Mistakes as a Nurse

    One of the core values of nursing is integrity, which means doing the right thing for our patients. While no nurse goes into a shift planning to harm a patient, current hospital climates can be conducive to making mistakes. With short staffing and heavy patient loads, even the most seasoned nurses are distracted and overworked.

    Patient harm doesn’t always come in the form of a medication error. It could be as simple as leaving a side rail down and contributing to a fall. If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve made a mistake, use these strategies to cope and learn from the situation.

    1. Remember: Mistakes Happen

    Ask any experienced nurse to recount an error they made as a new grad, and you will find that you are not the first nurse to make a mistake.

    Robin Squellati, Ph.D., APRN-C, an advanced practice nurse and faculty member for Walden University’s master of science in nursing (MSN) program, states errors are “not necessarily the fault of a nurse. It is often a systemic problem.”

    She notes that facilities should view mistakes from a global perspective to understand the root of the problem. Squellati suggests asking, “Was there poor staffing? Was the nurse overworked?”

    This is why it’s important to file an incident report when you make a mistake. Keep in mind that reporting systems are not meant to be punitive. They’re a way to collect data and trend problems occurring on a bigger scale.

    If every nurse filed an incident report on a critically understaffed shift, hospital leaders would be presented with quantitative data that correlates patient harm to poor staffing.

    “Any person can make an error if the conditions are right,” Squellati adds. “That is why a system approach needs to be considered.”

    2. Don’t Fake it

    As a new nurse, you may feel like you are constantly asking questions — that is normal! Nurses are continually evolving their skill sets, and it takes time and experience to gain confidence as a new nurse.

    Deji “DJ” Folami, an intensive care unit travel nurse with Cross Country Healthcare, emphasizes that nurses should never be afraid to speak up when they need help.

    “I believe that the day a nurse feels they know everything is the day that a nurse should stop working,” he says.

    As a new nurse, situations will arise where you are unsure of how to perform certain tasks. Instead of fumbling through a procedure alone, stop what you are doing and double-check the plan with another nurse. Even on your busiest shift, you will thank yourself for asking for help instead of faking it.

    Asked how he copes with the fear of making a mistake, Folami says, “I always do my work as if someone is watching me (such as a camera or a nursing professor), even if I am alone with a patient.”

    3. Education Is Power

    Many healthcare facilities offer continuing education classes for nurses and advanced competencies for your nursing specialty. This is a great investment of your time to improve your nursing career. You never know which tidbit you pick up in a course will come in handy during patient education.

    Remember that you have countless resources available to educate yourself in the work environment. If you don’t have an answer to a patient’s question, do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I am happy to find out for you.”

    4. Explore if You Have Role Conflict

    Sometimes the pressure of a high-acuity nursing unit can cause so much anxiety that you cannot thrive. If this is the case, it is appropriate to change departments to a unit that is a better fit for you. This may provide a safer learning environment for you to grow as a nurse until you are ready to transfer to a higher acuity specialty.

    If you make a mistake, do your best not to let it consume you. Squellati reminds us that negative self-talk only makes the situation worse.

    “Remember that your job is only part of who you are,” she says. “Focus on your family, ability to help others, educational achievements, and past accomplishments.”

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Deji "DJ" Folami, RN

    Deji "DJ" Folami, RN

    Deji “DJ” Folami is an intensive care unit registered travel nurse with Cross Country Healthcare from Oklahoma. Over the years, he has worked in different areas including home health. Folami specializes in critical care nursing and travel nursing. He has an A.A.S nursing degree with civic honors from Oklahoma City Community College and is working on his bachelor’s degree in nursing.

    Having come into nursing with business sales experience, Folami understands the value in having patients return to the same healthcare facility because that hospital is a trusted healthcare partner that meets their needs.


    Portrait of Robin Squellati, Ph.D., APRN-C

    Robin Squellati, Ph.D., APRN-C

    Robin Squellati is an advanced practice registered nurse and faculty member for Walden University’s master of science in nursing program. Squellati is a certified nurse practitioner and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, where she served as a nurse for 28 years.