Six Tips for DONs to Take the Stress Out of the Holiday Season

‘Tis the season! The season for giving. The season for family. The season for peppermint mocha lattés.

But for directors of nursing across the country, it’s also the season for stress. Between planning holiday parties and activities for your residents, juggling holiday staffing schedules—not to mention the constant stressors of regulatory changes, staffing issues, and all your other daily tasks—the idea of having a restful, relaxing holiday may feel like starry-eyed wishful thinking.

But it shouldn’t be. As a director of nursing, maintaining your work/life balance, especially this time of year, is imperative—not just to your own well being, but to the well being of your staff and your facility. After all, you set the tone for the rest of the staff to follow.

So this holiday season, take a step back, take a deep breath, and relax.

Here’s how:

  1. Make yourself a priority

Anyone who has been on an airplane knows the rule by heart:

In the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before helping anyone around you.

A necessary rule for low cabin pressure, and equally as important in the workplace.

“Many times with directors of nursing, they just give, give, give,” says Linda Shell, DNP, MA, RN and consulting partner for “It’s part of the DNA of the director of nursing. That’s why they went into nursing, to take care of other people.”

And with DONs, that usually translates into taking care of their staff as well as their residents. As a result, they often tend to lose sight of their own needs. But if you don’t take care of yourself, says Shell, you’ll be of no use to anyone else.

“You will have a better resonance in the environment if you’re taking care of yourself. And you’ll be a much better role model to those around you. The director of nursing—her attitude, her sense of positivity, whatever emanates from her—directly impacts all those around, so it’s key that a director of nursing thinks about how she can be a healthy person and that will be reflected to the environment,” says Shell.

  1. Structure your day and evaluate your tasks

It seems to be one of the tenets of leadership that when you’re overseeing an entire department, things can and will go quickly awry. That’s why it’s important to have a basic structure to your day and a plan of what you need to accomplish.

Not only will this help you to organize your schedule, it also gives you the opportunity to evaluate what you’re doing and determine if there is any room for change.

Often, a director of nursing may come into the position and simply take up the tasks of his or her predecessor, only to wonder later why they are handling a certain task. Other times, the DON may simply be accumulating tasks over time—tasks that actually belong to other people, even non-clinical or administrative duties.

Sound familiar?

If so, it’s time to do a root cause analysis of your tasks, says Shell. Ask yourself:

  • Is this something I should be responsible for?
  • Does this task require my personal expertise?
  • Does this task require my level of authority?
  • Is this a task that could be delegated elsewhere, and if so, to whom?
  • Is this a task for which I can split the responsibility with someone else?
  1. Delegate and trust your staff

Shell references the book “Leadership Without Easy Answers” by Ron Heifetz, in which the author poses that a leader can lead with just one question in hand.

The way Shell translates that to the role of DON, she says, is that many times, people come to the DON with problems to solve or questions to answer.

“And frankly, we don’t always have all the answers,” says Shell. “So it’s up to the director of nursing to say to somebody who constantly brings us problems to solve, ‘If you were in my shoes, how would you solve that problem?’ Or if somebody comes to you and says, ‘We need more staff,’ say back to them, ‘What does more staff look like to you?’”

In turning the question back to the asker rather than diving in without direction, you not only gain clarity into the situation, says Shell, you might also find that the employee is capable of solving the problem with some critical thinking and decision-making.

“Directors of nursing have to learn to trust that person and try to avoid micromanaging. When we are under high levels of stress, we tend to overuse our strengths. So if you’re a get-things-done person, if you’re an executor, you’ll tend to start micromanaging people and to try to do it yourself. Try to take a step back,” she says.

When you can give the tasks of management back to those who report to you, then you have the opportunity to spend more time in the leadership role, says Shell, such as developing the mission and vision for the nursing department, empowering your staff and providing opportunities for growth, leading change initiatives, and solving quality management issues.

“It’s where I find DONs get frustrated, because they never have time for leadership because they’re so busy in those management tasks,” says Shell.

Another reason for delegation is that directors of nursing should always be considering who their successor is going to be, even if they have no immediate plans of leaving their job.

“Frankly, things happen, change happens, and directors of nursing should always be looking at someone that maybe they can start to empower, so when they’re not there, this is the person that can fill that role,” says Shell.

  1. When taking time off, make a plan

As a DON, when you’re gone from work, there’s no one else to do your job. So things pile up, and there’s one person who’s responsible for them: you.

It’s one of the reasons DONs so infrequently take time off.

“One of the things I’ve learned as a director of nursing is you work twice as hard before you go on vacation and twice as hard when you come back,” says Shell.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a relaxing holiday off, or that you can’t take one. It just means you need to plan in advance

The first thing you should do is make a list of all the things you need to get done before you leave, and prioritize them (“because frankly, you may not get them all done,” says Shell).

But just as important, have a list for when you get back from vacation of everything you need to do.

“Otherwise, you never unload those from your brain and you go on vacation thinking, ‘I’ve got to remember this, I’ve got to remember that,’” says Shell.

When you commit them to paper, it gives your mind the permission you need to stop thinking about them when you shouldn’t have to.

  1. Take a mini-vacation

Even if you’re not taking time off for the holidays, make sure to take some time for yourself, even if it’s just a short break during the workday. It not only gives you much needed respite from the constant demands and stressors of the job, but research shows that taking breaks improves productivity in the workplace.

Shell says she always encourages DONs to give themselves a mini-vacation each day.

“It’s 15 to 20 minutes of time where you pull away from your work, you close your door, go to a quiet place, take a chance to re-center yourself, listen to something that is inspiring to you, something that helps you relax,” says Shell.

  1. Set your goals for the new year

The holidays will be over before you know it, and following closely, as usual, is the New Year. Which means it’s time for New Year’s resolutions.

As you start thinking about the New Year, develop and personal and a professional goal, says Shell.

“Many times, people only have their professional goals. One of the ways to maintain some of that work/life balance is making sure you have personal goals as well as professional goals,” she says.

Each day, take time to reflect on your goals and ask how you’re doing with them.

It’s also important to support your staff members in their goals.

“As leaders, what we put out will come back to us twofold. So if we’re encouraging other people around us to have personal and professional goals and understanding the importance of those, they can be supportive of us,” says Shell.

Here are some good examples:

Personal goal: Take a day or two off every once in a while to recharge and reenergize.

Professional goal: Empower your staff to take charge of coming up with solutions to problems. Delegate a couple of your tasks to capable staff members to allow them to learn and grow.

From those of us at AADNS, we wish you a restful, safe and happy holiday season!

For more articles and resources such as this one please visit

Dr. Linda Shell, MA. RN |

Dr. Linda Shell MA, RN, principal and co-owner of LindaShell.Com and Legacy Market Services, Inc, has over twenty-five years of experience providing education, leadership development and consultation to non-profit and for-profit senior care organizations.

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