Empowering Nurses: Preventing Burnout Through Cross Cultural Medical Experiences

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”

~ Mahatma Gandhi



Medical Volunteer Abroad


This week, as part of recognizing the amazing contributions that nurses make to healthcare we want to share some thoughts about cross-cultural nursing in terms of “self-care for healthcare” or preventing workplace burnout. 

For over 30 years, MedTreks has been dedicated to providing cross-cultural international development experiences for nurses. Why do we think this is important for nursing wellness and preventing nursing burnout? 

Nurses have a unique profession. Their responsibilities in the workplace require them to be hard-working, adaptable, dependable, skilled, motivated, capable of multi-tasking &  collaborating but also working independently with ease and thinking critically under the most stressful situations. Nurses learn to function under pressure, working long hours on their feet, often times with little sleep. They constantly put their own needs aside as they provide care for others. 

Our cross-cultural global health experiences are created because we have seen that nurses constantly seek out ways to give back, to share their skills, to be helpful and useful.  Despite their generosity and selflessness, nurses are constantly buckling from the pressure of the healthcare system: long hours, limited rest times, unhealthy lifestyle habits, awkward sleep schedules, increased patient care responsibilities, and additional documentation requirements…it is no wonder that nursing burnout is on the rise.

Our MedTreks programs are working to provide an additional perspective on the increase in workplace exhaustion. It is unhealthy, unproductive and unnecessary. Self-care for nurses and other health professionals has been increasing in the spotlight recently – blogs, articles and news stories are talking about diet and lifestyle modifications for helping to avoid workplace burnout. While we agree that lifestyle modifications such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga are absolutely beneficial and powerful for helping nurses find mental and emotional wellness (and the reason why we host a MedTreks wellness retreat every year for health professionals), we would like to provide an additional topic to the wellness discussion..and that is the topic of cross-cultural and international service learning experiences.

The opportunity to remove yourself from the day to day grind at home, step away from the personal and workplace stressors into a new environment, provides a new perspective and often a life-changing experience for nurses as they witness the beauty and perseverance of communities and people living with so much less. 

Working abroad with other health professionals from different backgrounds allows us to enhance our own professional development as we learn new ways of providing medical care and step away from our algorithmic approach to treating illness. These international experiences open up a more holistic perspective for health promotion and disease prevention. We have seen time again the nurses that return from our MedTreks Kenya trips, feeling empowered, inspired and recharged to return to their own communities and reintegrate what they have learned abroad into their work at home.


Do I have what it takes to volunteer abroad? 

Over the years we have had several nurses ask us if they “have what it takes” to volunteer abroad. For those nurses who are reading this and considering going to volunteer or work abroad, the fact that you are a nurse makes it highly likely you already have what it takes..but in case you need a little more guidance or reassurance, here is a list of qualities that we have seen shine through our MedTreks nurses when we travel to Kenya.



MedTreks Telehealth Kenya

Qualities of a Global Health & Humanitarian Nurse: 

Curious: one of the best traits that a nurse can bring with them on their international adventures is the ability to be curious. Learn to listen and observe before taking action. Ask thoughtful questions, consider different solutions. Be mindful of your own judgements or though patterns and ask yourself how these have been shaped or formed. This is an excellent time to learn about healthcare delivery in a completely different context.

Flexible: “Going with the flow” should be your mantra if you work abroad. We have seen that the nurses who walk away with the best experiences are the ones that kept their spirit of positivity, despite challenging circumstances. Traveling usually always entails unexpected events like flat tires, equipment malfunction, weather delays, etc. The more flexible and positive your attitude is, the better experience you will have.

Adaptable: nurses are inherently skilled at multi-tasking. Learning how to do simple procedures with limited materials is a skill that every nurse who goes overseas should learn how to do. Be ok with grey areas and get comfortable not seeing the world in black or white. Start thinking about ways that you can be multifunctional when abroad: what skills can you bring? Can you teach CPR, First Aid?

Responsible: working abroad you are representing your home country but if you choose to volunteer for an NGO or program abroad, you are also representing their program. Wear conservative clothing, be mindful of your body language. Knowing your scope of practice back home can be helpful to guide you in your clinical care while abroad, but make sure to check with your host organization about specific limitations in terms of direct patient care and patient privacy issues.

Dependable: Our MedTreks mission is based on ongoing mentorship. Many of our MedTreks nurses have returned several times to work with our program in Kenya. Seek out programs that you will invest your time and energy in over a longer term. Rather than skipping around to different countries and introducing yourself to a wide variety of programs, find a program that matches your interests, your passions, and your mission. Think about ways to support this program long term. Short term medical volunteering may be the only feasible way to physically show up to the program, but there are many other ways that programs can use support such as marketing, professional development, and ongoing clinical education and training.

Joyful: a quality that is often overlooked when discussing medical volunteering abroad, is the ability to bring joy to the work environment. Seek out ways to connect with the local staff. This can be through ice breaker games, soccer matches, offering a cooking class on a recipe from your home town, throwing your host program a party, teaching yoga or dance class before work. Find ways to make the days be a little more light and fun. Laughter is a global language.


Medical Volunteer Abroad



We hope this short list was helpful and you feel a little more inspired to get involved in Global Health and Humanitarian Medicine! Thank you to all the dedicated and passionate nurses out there! We hope you continue to shine your light on the world!

Questions about volunteering in Kenya? Email us! 



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