Friday, 30 June 2017

How Much More Evidence Do We Need about Nurses’ Work Environments?

Ann-Marie Urban


Over three decades of research, monies, attention and recommendations highlight how the working conditions influence nurse turnover, retention, cost and more recently as highlighted in the recent virtual issue on nurses’ health. Gallagher and Pickler note the importance of healthy diets and stress management as part of improving nurses’ health, however, it is important to recognize the problematic work environment that continues to influence nurses’ health and their work. The realities of many work environments do not allow nurses to practise in a safe and caring way much of the time. Unfortunately, it requires nurses to be productive, expedite discharge, manage increasing complex patients and practise within a traditional hierarchical structure. Sadly, this disconnect has created nurses who are increasingly sick, stressed, bullied, burned out and morally fatigued.

What will the conditions be like in another decade? While nurses know that they work in the adverse conditions of acute care, they may not understand how they contribute to and are organized to meet institutional demands. Increasing patient acuity, budget constraints, a chronic shortage of staff, and overcrowding are routine in hospitals, yet no one discusses how this influences nurses’ work except when discussing nurses as stressed, fatigued or comprising patient care. Nurses are placed in situations where they lack the time, the resources and, in some cases, even the knowledge to care for patients. Because of these problems every year nurses suffer mental and physical injuries which are largely preventable. And sadly but not widely acknowledged, because the majority of nurses are women, this work is expected. Patriarchal underpinning and gendered assumptions situate nurses and their work in a quagmire of persistent problems with strategies focusing on nurses rather than on the system. While the nurse and nurses’ work have been widely studied, a focus on gender related to nurses’ physical and mental health is lacking. Understanding the realities and acknowledging the actualities of nurses’ work in hospitals are key to change. However, before a new reality will be realized, embedded assumptions about nurses and their work must be acknowledged by government, hospital managers and nurses. Similarly, nurses’ work must be understood within the context of the moving political and economic agendas. Further attention must be directed to the nurse’s work environment and how this influences patient care and the health of nurses.

Although efforts to improve the conditions in hospitals have been attempted, few strategies effectively support nurses’ health in their efforts towards patient care in the context of today’s hospitals. What has to change for hospital administrators, governments, professional associations, unions and researchers to notice and make changes? Is it not enough that nurses’ illness and injuries continue to be a problem, and that patient care is compromised? The existing traditional structure must be challenged to embark on another way. Supporting nurses’ health is vitally important for their overall well being for the care of patients.

A new structure would recognize nurses’ work by shifting their participation to a collaborative decision-making team. Different models of care delivery would move nurses to autonomous roles such as patient education, admission and discharge coordinators and patient advocates or to a model that incorporates an expanded role for nurses. Nurses and their work must also be understood within a broader sociopolitical context. Creating a collective awareness about the influencing powers could provide the space for discussion and possibilities for change. The gendered aspect of nursing must also be acknowledged as well as how nurses actively participate in maintaining their place in the hospital. Nurses, too, must realize other possibilities; they must realize that they do not have to become injured, stressed or leave the profession because of the patriarchal and political ruling. Untangling power will take time; however, if we begin to recognize and name it, nurses’ work has the potential to change.


Ann-Marie Urban, RN, RPN
Associate Professor
Faculty of Nursing, University of Regina,
ann-marie.urban@uregina.ca



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