In the midst of a massive nursing exodus happening in several locations such as the UK, Canada, and some states of the US, the tools to improve and optimize nurse retention become paramount for providing patients with the best healthcare possible. This is the objective that Sharon Cox, RN, MSN, and Shelley Cohen, RN, MSN, CEN, had when they wrote their book Essential Skills for Nurse Managers, a popular guide where everyone can learn the ups and downs of managing a workforce of professional nurses, including tips and strategies to maximize nurse retention and minimize, within the realm of plausibility, their leaving the trade in search of better opportunities.
Nurse retention, or lack thereof, has become a serious issue in countries like the UK where, according to the Royal College of Nursing, experienced nurses are currently quitting the occupation in droves in face of lackluster payments and degenerating work conditions paired with increasing workloads. Furthermore, as more nursing professionals quit their jobs, the remaining personnel will have to work harder to compensate for the loss, which doesn’t convey an increase in salary or additional benefits, despite piling more hours of work onto them.
According to an article released by the Royal College of Nursing, nurses with more than 10 years of experience in the trade have been abandoning their jobs due to increasing work responsibilities that increasingly pile additional burdens on top of their regular activities, and a meager pay increase that falls well behind in compensating the healthcare professionals for their tireless labors. On average, it is estimated that around 600 nurses with a decade or more experience abandon the profession every year, as opposed to the 2013-2014 period, where roughly half the amount of nurses quit their jobs, or to the 2012-2013 period, where only 36 registered nurses with more than 10 years of experience left the profession. Unfortunately, the numbers featured on the Royal College of Nursing’s report are only figurative, and it is estimated that the losses will be much higher in number by the end of the year.
In England, the nursing trade is facing a similar situation, as vacancies for the profession in public health centers have climbed to at least 11,500, with no signs of stopping. Similarly, the Nursing and Midwifery Council reported that, as of today, more registered professionals are leaving the trade than joining, and that a severe shortage of medical care personnel will ensue if this matter is not addressed soon.
The chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Janet Davies, has made an official statement regarding the current situation, in which she said that adverse working conditions, increasing workload, and meager salaries should not be enough to prompt seasoned nurses to throw the towel and abandon the trade. Furthermore, she went on to say that there is much more at stake here than the personnel’s personal and monetary gain, as every time a veteran leaves nursing, they’re not only causing a shortage of talent, but they’re also taking years of experience and professionalism with them, forcing new and younger nurses to fend for themselves in a trade that piles more and more responsibilities on the inexperienced shoulders every day. Davies insists that the nursing trade is designed to include many young nurses, as well as a handful of experienced professionals to show them the ropes. With this shortage of veteran nurses, the timeless tradition is at risk of coming to a premature end.
The solution, says Davies, lies in the timely discussions between the four countries of the UK to come up with a plan to provide incentives that may increase nurse retention in the long run, and to stimulate those who have abandoned the profession to come back and share their knowledge with the new generation of nursing personnel. Lastly, Davies also claims that the solution must also involve setting in legislation the safe staffing levels in all healthcare facilities, investing in better working conditions for the staff, and lifting the pay cap that is directly affecting the nurses’ purchasing power.
Cohen and Cox’s Solution
When increasing the pay cap or improving the nurses’ working conditions is out of reach, nurse managers can still make a difference in the workplace with several well-executed strategies, and increase nurse retention in the process.
In a survey where over 1,500 nurses participated, they stated that their most important incentive in the workplace was personal recognition by their manager when they perform complex tasks or go out of their way to assist others in the job despite not gaining any benefits from it. For example, those who are called in to cover an extra shift when the corresponding nurse is sick or can’t assist will usually receive an additional paycheck due to overtime. Sure, the money’s good and will usually make the nurse happier for having additional income at the end of the week, but another thing that may also generate a similar (if not better) feeling of happiness is being personally praised by their manager for the hard work put into covering the extra shift. For some nurses, the recognition is often important than the extra pay, and this can come in many shapes, forms, and sizes. In one particular case mentioned in the book, a nurses that covered an extra shift found a single pack of Lifesavers in her locker, placed there by her manager alongside a note thanking her for the effort and stating that she was a “lifesaver”. This play on words got a smile out of the hardworking nurse and made her feel that it was well worth the effort.
The problem that most nurse managers have right now is that they might feel that seasoned and experienced nurses have no need for “petty” compliments or recognition when, in reality, the opposite is true. For some nurses, the fact that they feel valued and appreciated by their superiors and peers is often enough to make them stay in their jobs, despite negative working conditions or sub-standard wages.
Sometimes, a thank-you note is all that is needed to make a nurse feel important and to be reminded that they matter in the context of their workplace.