How To Recover From Mistakes in Nursing

Work through nursing mistakes with courage and integrity while moving forward as an improved, compassionate professional — nurse Kara-Marie Hall explains how

Your heart is palpitating and your thoughts are racing. You’ve just made a nursing mistake. What should you do? How might your coworkers react?

It's no secret that we all make mistakes. However, nursing errors are criticized harder because human lives are at stake. Here are a few of the most common nursing mistakes:

  • Forgetting to turn on the bed alarm for a patient at high risk for falls
  • Incorrectly programming an IV pump resulting in underdosing or overdosing
  • Failing to report a change in a patient's condition
  • Medication errors 
  • Inaccurate documentation 

It’s important to note that mistakes in nursing aren't limited to nurses who work at the bedside. Nurse leaders make mistakes, too. For instance, a nurse manager may hurriedly hire a new staff member who turns out to be a poor fit for the department. Or, a charge nurse may fail to communicate recent changes to the unit, leading to a breakdown of trust between management and staff. 

No matter your role in nursing, mistakes are inevitable. What's most important is how you deal with them afterward. Here are four tips to use while working through and moving on from nursing errors.

1. Own up to making a nursing error

Once you've realized your nursing mistake, determine how to rectify the situation. Be honest about what occurred, so you and your colleagues can focus on the next best steps. 

As nurses, we have to put our patient's well-being ahead of our pride. Let's say a nurse gave one patient's medications to another patient. Embarrassment and shame may tempt this nurse to keep quiet about the error. However, it's wiser to call the pharmacy and the doctor, explaining the situation. The nurse will then know what adverse reactions to look for and what to do if they occur. Further, the doctor and pharmacy will know if they need to make adjustments to the patient’s plan of care or medication regimen.

Non-clinical communication errors count as well

Often, when we speak about nursing errors, we're referring to clinical misjudgment. However, communication mistakes, such as reacting in anger or giving a rude response, can create tense workplace relations that impact patient care and employee engagement. 

If you believe you've offended someone, try to make things right by sincerely apologizing. This gesture is usually appreciated and demonstrates your humility as well as a genuine willingness to collaborate. In the end, you'll help build a workplace culture full of trust and integrity. 

2. Reflect, don’t ruminate over your nursing mistake

American psychologist Joyce Brothers once said, "You need to give yourself permission to be human." When you reflect, you give yourself room to accept yourself and move on. Conversely, when you ruminate, or dwell on the past, you open yourself up to constant self-criticism, which perpetuates negative thoughts.  

Once you've stabilized the situation surrounding the nursing mistake, ask yourself:

  • What caused me to make this mistake?
  • What was my emotional state at the time of my misjudgment (e.g., overwhelmed, lethargic)?
  • What could I have done differently?

Reflection comes in various forms including:

  • Speaking with a nursing colleague you trust to analyze the situation objectively
  • Meditation or mindfulness to help you stay present 
  • Journaling to process your feelings and emotions
  • Therapy with a licensed professional to help you find new ways of managing troublesome thoughts that refuse to dissipate 

When you’ve made a mistake, it’s normal to feel worried about your reputation. However, your reaction should not revolve around one isolated mistake you've made. Instead, try to focus on how to move forward. In fact, one of the best ways to forge ahead is to help other nurses avoid making the same mistake. 


3. Share experiences openly

Imagine incorrectly programming an intravenous (IV) infusion. As you catch the error, you fix any adverse effects to the best of your ability, and inform management. Together, your nurse colleagues and the leadership team can help determine the root cause of the error and develop strategies to prevent other nurses from making the same error. 

Nurse leaders have an unique opportunity to use their mistakes for the greater good of their department and organization. As a nurse leader, sharing your own mistakes with staff demonstrates that you’re relatable and dedicated to creating a just, open culture that values all employees, regardless of their errors. 

4. Learn from positive influences

Depending on the gravity of the error, you may need some time to feel confident again as a nurse or nurse leader. During this time, it’s imperative to surround yourself with positive people. Colleagues who gossip or remind you of your mistakes will only drain your morale. Instead, place yourself with colleagues who are supportive, understanding, and willing to listen. Further, look at their clinical or leadership practices. What systems or habits do they have in place that you can adopt for your own practice? 


The common principles connecting all of these tips are courage and compassion. It takes courage to admit when we are wrong, and it takes compassion to care about the impact of our actions on others — whether they are a patient or colleague. Further, when we extend this compassion to ourselves, we realize that mistakes are, in fact, lessons to help us grow into better nurses, leaders, and human beings.