About the Job

Creating a Flexible Workplace for Nurses

Creating a Flexible Workplace for Nurses

It’s no secret that hospitals have a high employee turnover rate. In fact, it’s as high as 70% for new nurses alone. This little tidbit of information opens up the conversation about the dark side of nursing:  High levels of burnout, higher risk of illness or injury for nurses and patients suffering due to a decrease in the quality of care.

Why does this happen?  Why is it, that a profession that can bring such feelings of fulfillment can also drive a good nurse to leave their job? One of the answers to these questions may lie in the workplace specifically, like the lack of flexibility that a healthcare facility typically has.  Unfortunately, little resources and drastic cost-cutting means that flexibility in the workplace is not a common occurrence.

Unlike typical office environments, implementing a flexible workplace in a hospital setting is not easy;  it’s not like a nurse can opt to work from home 2 days a week.  However, with careful planning and active participation from management and staff, workplace flexibility can be offered to many hospital employees, even the nurses.

Why is flexibility so important?

It’s a well-known fact that rigid workplaces do not promote high levels of productivity, but they do promote high levels of mediocracy.  Lack of flexibility in a job means that eventually an employee’s morale will decrease and the effort to do a good job will disappear. It also means that employees will not remain loyal to their employer and will eventually leave in search of a more accommodating and perhaps less toxic workplace.

Studies have shown that workplaces that offer flexibility report lower rates of absenteeism and illness, higher levels of employee commitment and more productivity. In other words, allowing staff, such as nurses, to have more control of their working environment, will allow them to work to the best of their ability and to do so in a safe and supportive environment.

Work-life balance = less absenteeism and more continuity of patient care

Creating an environment that embraces work-life balance enables employees to meet their personal and workplace responsibility.  It also reduces stress, which means better health.  Employees who feel that they do not have that balance, that even when they are outside of work they are thinking of work and when they are on shift are thinking of home,  often develop a weak immune system that makes them prone to every cold or flu bug that floats by.  That, in turn, means that they have to take time off work.

In a hospital environment, high rates of absenteeism are a big issue because, for premium patient care, it’s important that patients can feel a connection to their nurses.  Meaning that temporary workers, the ones that are called in to cover the shifts of those sick nurses, do not promote ideal patient care environments. 

What does flexible work look like for nurses and hospitals?

Since this is a relatively new concept, there are very few examples of a working flexible workplace model for nurses or hospitals.  However, as more research is done on the topic, a few ideas are being considered like:

Choice over work schedules:  As it stands, most nurses, especially the newer ones, don’t have a choice over what schedule they will work.  This makes planning around work difficult.  For parents who have young children, it can be challenging to find childcare, especially when having to work over night.  However, giving hospital staff the option to work whatever shifts suits them best might alleviate some of the pressure and stress that comes from shift work.  It might be surprising to see how many people will volunteer to work over night.

Phased out retirement:  As a nurse advances in his or her career, they might start thinking about the idea of retirement. Allowing nurses to slowly phase out of work, meaning they slowly reduce the number of hours they work in a week until full retirement, gives them the option to maintain a part-time job while getting financially ready for retirement. 

Offering compressed work weeks:  While this may be difficult to do with a nursing schedule, offering the option to work a compressed work week can go a long way to ensuring a work-life balance for nurses.  A compressed work week means that more time is added to the daily schedule to allow for an extra day off every few weeks. 

Create at home roles: Creativity goes a long way to offering a flexible workplace, especially for nurses and hospitals where 9 to 5 isn’t the norm.  Take the time to really look at all the roles and tasks that are tied to patient care, there just might be opportunities to find roles that suit both “floor” time and home time.  In other words, there might be the option to break down nursing roles and allow them the chance to work from one once in a while. 

What does flexible workplace look like for management

Like any other workplace initiative, a flexible work environment is a two-way street.  That means that as much as the staff needs to commit so does management.  So, it might mean more training, or even more staffing, but with the right commitment, offering staff a flexible work environment does not have to be very difficult for management

There will be more complex scheduling to deal with, which means that attention and consultation might be needed to set-up and build schedules that suit everyone's needs and ensure proper patient care. 

There will be more training required for HR staff and possibly the need to hire more people to ensure that the right amount of boots are on the ground.  This is especially important when transitioning to a flexible work environment. 

Take this opportunity to chat with employees, find out what they want and need.  Let them create a wish list for their particular roles.  While not all wishes can be granted, this will provide a clear indication of the areas that need to shift to offer more flexibility.  While this is going on, review current policies and procedures to allow ensure that hospital rules allow more flexibility in jobs.  Finally, make sure to collect data, what’s working and what isn’t.  Every change is going to have to go through growing pains and not everything that is implemented will work.  Data will help determine what type of flexibility will work in what environment.

Embracing the flexible workplace

The most important thing to remember is that careful planning, creativity, embracing and celebrating change are keys to organizational success and to employee satisfaction.

In the current state, hospitals don’t necessarily have enough wiggle room in the roles for a flexible workplace - especially for nurses.  However, keeping the benefits of flexible workplaces, the reduction in stress and the increase in productivity that it can bring to the top of mind and opens the door to exploring options.

It’s not an easy transition and change is never easy, but it can be done.  And, frankly, the benefits will outweigh the growing pains that come along with transitioning a workplace.  In the long run, allowing nurses to take control of their careers, their roles within the hospitals and their working conditions is good for them and ultimately good for patient care.