Work! The Missing Element in Work-Life Balance

Years ago, a colleague of mine described her new job to me as having great work-life balance. She went on to detail how the work was easy and gave her so much time to focus on non-work aspects of her life. A few months later, she was languishing, both in life and the job. Easy work wasn’t challenging, intellectually stimulating, or satisfying. Time with family and friends, enjoying her hobbies—all enjoyable enough—didn’t compensate for the fact that a large part of her life felt empty.

As we wisely turn our attention to improving the well-being of nurses, we need to remember that wellness is not one-dimensional. As we add chief wellness officers, enhance support for workforce well-being, and make employee assistance programs much more accessible, we would be equally wise to turn our attention to the work itself. Meaningful work, as my colleague experienced firsthand, brings a sense of satisfaction – a vital factor in work-life balance. After all, we became nurses because we wanted to make a difference in the world.

For decades now, we in nursing have had clear, verifiable evidence about practice environments that foster nurse satisfaction. As organizations strategize ways to promote continuous learning, development, and well-being for nurses, it can be helpful to acknowledge that rooted deep in these efforts is a common understanding that excellence matters. The pursuit of continuous learning and development not only helps nurses hone their skills, but also boosts their well-being as they take ownership and demonstrate a sense of mastery in their craft.

While nurses pivot from one crisis to another, it is important to remember that we can always do something to alleviate the burden that they are currently facing. Here are practical ways that we can improve nurse well-being through more meaningful work:

  • Professional practice environments are highly associated with increased nurse satisfaction and less burnout. Foster a working environment where nurses have autonomy and control over their practice using professional governance structures.
  • Clear structures for nurse autonomy and control over nurse decision making, within the realm of their practice, results in excellence in both the nursing experience and patient outcomes.
  • Teams that are collaborative make work more enjoyable, effective, and productive. Promote team collaboration, civility in communication, and inclusivity.
  • Invest in professional development, with residency programs at the onset of practice and ongoing continuing formal and informal education to promote organizational commitment and growth. To take this one step further, ensure these resources are relevant and align with organizational priorities and the dynamic needs of your nursing teams.
  • Meaningful recognition highlights, celebrates, rewards, and promotes excellence in nursing practice. Infuse recognition of nursing excellence and share stories of the profound impact of nursing practice as a habit.

I can think of no better way to celebrate Nurses Week than to renew our commitment to create the structures and processes where nurses can take ownership of their own clinical practice. While it is true that rest and restoration are important to our well-being, we must not forget that personal and professional growth and fulfilling work is a key ingredient of life satisfaction. Let’s start there.

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