Everywhere I look, people are talking about the issue of nurse staffing. While it’s obvious nurse staffing is essential, I think we need to also start talking about nurse intellectual capital.
A recent study found that between March 2021 and March 2022, the median nursing tenure fell by a shocking 19.5%. A wave of retiring, experienced nurses is ushering in an era where underprepared novice nurses are tasked to take on unprecedented challenges in the health care industry. From never-before-seen vacancy rates to an overreliance on temporary staffing, the industry is facing staffing shortages coupled with a loss of the health care system’s intellectual capital.
A combination of competence and commitment, intellectual capital is the engine that runs the entire health care system. However, in an industry where clinicians – specifically nurses – are leaving in droves, how can we make sure that organizations are running as they should? It’s time to stop thinking only about numbers and give as much attention to maximizing the resources we do have by investing in maturing the clinical knowledge of nurses and creating a professional practice environment that liberates that knowledge to flourish. Organizations with a robust learning culture have measurable benefits of greater employee and customer satisfaction, increased productivity, and stronger financial performance.
So how does one create a culture that grows and maximizes intellectual capital?
- Create a learning organization. As I left nursing school, I thought I would master my craft within a year or two. Fortunately, I was wrong. Nursing has a plethora of opportunities to learn and grow through practice and leadership experiences. Surround nurses with the frame of learning not only as they transition into their first clinical position but also as they become novice preceptors, charge nurses, nurse managers, etc. This doesn’t require a formal learning program—. In contrast, 70% comes from challenging assignments and experiences. As we introduce more responsibilities to novice nurses, we must also provide them with the necessary tools to make growth and development more accessible. Provide just-in-time skill development and coaching on how to make decisions, address challenges and create processes that support nurses to share their successes and mistakes, receive feedback, and develop in growing roles.
- Provide coaching and generate social networks for sharing information. A full 20% of learning occurs through social learning, coaching, mentoring, collaborative learning, and other methods of interaction with peers. Provide coaching to guide people to develop and perfect their skills. Be thoughtful about selecting mentors to ensure they serve as role models for desired behaviors. Leverage routine meetings to share stories of successes, failures, and lessons learned. Make it a point to celebrate progress as nurses develop mastery and take on new challenges.
- Create employee commitment through a professional practice environment. If we treat nurses as a workgroup and not as professionals, we will never unleash the intellectual expertise that undergirds nursing practice. Nurses thrive in an infrastructure that enables them to grapple with the complexities facing healthcare. We must enable them to make decisions about their professional practice, find facets to continuously innovate, and apply emerging knowledge to disseminate best and promising practices. Rather than set professional governance structures aside during this time of short staffing, lean into them to maximize the engagement and amplify the sharing of intellectual expertise of nurses throughout the system.
When we think only about staffing and not about how to leverage and maximize the intellectual expertise of professional nurses, we miss the opportunity to foster the excitement and engagement that comes from learning and growing their expertise. As we think of a viable future in this new normal, we must have the capability to maximize the knowledge of each nurse as they apply it to the care that they provide.
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Marla J. Weston, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a registered nurse and former CEO of the American Nurses Association. Currently, she serves as the senior advisor for Practicing Excellence’s Nursing Experience Project (NEP), an app-based skill-building solution created by nurses, for nurses.