All nurses are leaders who can help create a safe and joyous workplace
By Dianne Martin
May 2, 2022
It was speeches day in grade six, when we all took turns delivering speeches in front of the school and our parents. Choosing an interesting topic was the best part as it was one of the few academic freedoms allotted to us at that age. I was fascinated by my mom, a primary care nurse who knew so much and was beloved in our small town because she always made time for everyone. She was also incredibly inspiring and, in this case, motivated me to do my presentation on Florence Nightingale.
I remember my overly enthusiastic opening well: “A poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, a painting by Jan Vermeer and even a goal by Paul Henderson [it was, after all, 1973]. All of these required talent. Florence Nightingale also had talent, but her talent was caring.” And so the speech went. What happened next, however, I did not see coming.
At the completion of the speeches, my teacher spoke to the audience about the students of the day, referring to them as public speakers. She spoke about how students were choosing more modern, interesting topics, whereas in her day, they relied on less current or less adventurous topics, such as Florence Nightingale or the planetary system. I remember sitting in my seat blinking in confusion trying to absorb the news that I had not chosen a modern or relevant topic.
An art as well as a science
Making sense of that moment is so much easier later in my life as I reflect on nursing as a profession. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just identified nursing as an art as well as a science. I also didn’t realize at the time that I was witnessing the extent to which it would fall to nurses themselves to continually advocate for the recognition, respect and support needed to engage in the science and art of nursing every day.
These past two years have challenged nursing in terms of both art and science. Throughout the pandemic, nursing has consistently risen to the challenge of the science of our profession. We have learned more about pathology, immunity and infection prevention and control than we had ever thought would be necessary in our work lives. In every sector, nurses have been asked to step outside of their normal areas of knowledge and practice, becoming a key piece in the battle to treat and prevent COVID-19, saving innumerable lives in the process. But the challenge of living through a pandemic has been exhausting, traumatic and demoralizing for many nurses.
The pandemic’s toll
Midway through the pandemic, a survey done by the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario revealed that 34 per cent of registered practical nurses in Ontario were considering leaving the profession. We learned that the toll taken on nurses has been devastating, and now we must turn our hearts and minds to the art of nursing, particularly the healing of nurses, so that the joy and love of our profession can return. One of the main problems is that the leaders we turn to when our front-line nurses need support are themselves experiencing their own struggles with burnout.
The challenge of living through a pandemic has been exhausting, traumatic and demoralizing for many nurses.
During the first year of the pandemic, the phrase “we are all in this together” gave encouragement to many and united us in a common purpose. But as we enter year three, our teams have become frayed at the edges and cohesiveness has been lost as many nurses left their roles in search of relief in other posts or turned away from the profession because of anxiety, mental distress and burnout. Other nurses simmered with anger or became disengaged, resulting in the loss of our joyful and supportive working environments. The art of nursing — the intuitive, deep sense of caring for our patients and each other — has been left on the back burner in our collective efforts to survive the constant heavy workloads, unexpected changes and pressures of bearing witness to so much suffering. As a result, many nurses have expressed a sense of reduced joy and team cohesion in the workplace, which they long to get back.
Leadership through “encouraging the heart”
In Kouzes and Posner’s book, Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others (2003), the authors describe leaders’ roles in recognizing their team for a job well done and expressing their confidence in their team’s abilities. They hold that the more you encourage the heart, the more engaged people become in their roles and responsibilities. In nursing, the act of encouraging the heart has the potential to reignite the art of the profession. More importantly, encouraging the heart is something that point-of-care nurses can do every day to help rebuild the supportive environment that so many are missing.
Nurses can repair the world they loved by recognizing the efforts of others, looking out for one another and checking in to ensure that everyone is okay. It can be as simple as making sure a colleague has something to eat or reassuring a team member that you’re there for them no matter what they face each day. When colleagues are facing the same trauma every day, it is important to ask, “Are you doing okay?” and to reassure each other, “We’re going to get through this together.” “We can do this.” “I won’t let you sink today, and I know you won’t let me sink.”
In doing so, we remember who we are and why we went into nursing in the first place. Most of all, we can create an environment in which we feel safe and heard by the people who partner with us the most in our important collective efforts to provide care. Additionally, we will come face to face with the realization that we are all leaders and can effect change that makes nursing a career we can love again, one that gives us a level of self-actualization characterized by receiving the support we need to make a difference in the lives of others, which is a driving motivation for nursing in general.
The real leaders at the end of this pandemic will be those in formal and non-formal leadership roles who help each other through each day, bringing the laughter and joy back to our nursing environments, whatever they may be.
With leadership habits that are based in a deep sense of caring for others, vulnerability, honesty, hope and respect, the healing can begin. With that healing can come a renewed love for this great profession of ours while we rightfully reclaim it as a rewarding and worthy career to aspire to at any age.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2003). Encouraging the heart: A leader’s guide to rewarding and recognizing others. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Dianne Martin, RPN, RN, MA, FCAN, is chief executive officer of the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario. She is dually registered as an RN and an RPN in Ontario.