Will Tattoos or Piercings Limit Your Nursing Career?

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nurses_tattoo_policyIf you’re a nurse — or are studying to become one — and you’ve got body art, you may wonder if your piercings or tattoos will affect your work. If they’re hidden under your clothing, like a back tattoo or belly button piercing, chances are you don’t have to worry. But that’s not always the case if you’re sporting something more visible, like a nose ring or tattoos on your forearms.

Nurses tattoo policy

There’s no official policy on nurses with body art from organizations like the American Nurses Association or the National Student Nurses Association. But there are policies in place at schools, hospitals and other facilities nurses work in, usually in the form of a dress code. And although these rules generally say a nurse’s body art can’t be offensive or violent in nature, the specifics of what’s allowed to be shown differ widely.

Some call for a complete cover-up of tattoos and removal of piercings; not even simple ear studs are allowed while a nurse is on the floor. Others say it’s only tattoos above the collar, or on the lower arms or hands that are problematic. And some say it’s OK to cover up a tattoo or piercing with a bandage while at work, while other policies explicitly prohibit this. And to make matters even more confusing, many facilities have different rules from the schools they partner with, leaving it up to nurses and students themselves to read and interpret the rules correctly.

Often the policies boil down to what patient perception the facility thinks is most likely. For example, a common question is whether there’s more bacteria around piercings, imposing additional risk on already compromised patients. But many nurses point out that long nails, rings and long hair are also known to foster bacteria, and they’re not questioned or banned. The problem is that piercings are seen as having bacteria.

Negative perception of tattoos

Another perception problem is that body art, and particularly tattoos, is viewed as having a criminal association. This is especially true for patients in older generations, who may be more likely to take offense, since tattoos used to be associated with fringe elements in society. And sometimes, as with the case of Holocaust survivors, tattoos can have deeply traumatic associations. And if a patient is distracted by a nurse’s tattoo, developing a therapeutic relationship may be difficult.

Perception is key because if a patient is offended by a nurse’s body art and has a bad experience, it directly affects the hospital or facility’s patient satisfaction scores.

Positive views of tattoos

But the other end of the spectrum may have some sway. Some nurses point out advantages with tattoos or piercings. First, they act as icebreakers with patients. A particularly colorful tattoo or interesting piercing can function as a conversation starter with a patient who’s having a hard time. Some nurses say this is especially true with children, who are distracted in all of the right ways by their body art, and in turn, are able to better handle whatever health situation they’re in.

Some piercings and tattoos have significant cultural meaning, as with Hindu and Muslim Indian women and nose rings, which are related to marriage. And, with body art becoming increasingly common in general, patients with tattoos or piercings may see some common ground if their provider has these things, too. In these ways, body art can act as an instant empathy builder and connection point.

Tattoos in nursing

Perception on an individual level can’t be ignored, and a nurse’s demographic could be the biggest factor in how their body art affects their career growth. Studies have shown that females with tattoos are seen more critically than males. And if a nurse is younger and just starting out, it may not be an issue, since what was seen as taboo or detrimental to a career in the past won’t be in the future.

Where you ultimately choose to practice matters, too. For example, in certain branches of the military, like the Navy, nurses with visible tattoos must receive waivers in order to be promoted to higher ranks.

Given all of the gray areas, what’s a nurse or future nurse to do? If you’re considering body art, count your career in the mix and avoid tattoos or piercings that are likely to offend or distract your patient population. If you’re already inked or pierced, know the rules at your particular facility, so you’re within bounds when on the job.

And if, as in the case of nurses in the Navy, your tattoo has the potential to limit your career, address it early. Find out what kind of waiver you’ll have to get and what steps you’ll need to take to continue to grow professionally.

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