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Retaining nurse managers


The nurse manager role is pivotal in staff nurse satisfaction and retention, quality of patient care, and achieving organizational goals, which is why the decreasing numbers of qualified nurse managers in the acute care environment is of concern.

The American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) reported vacancy rates for nurse managers are on average as high as 8.3% nationwide. This fact is compounded by the intent of the largest group of nurse managers with long career and organizational experience and higher levels of organizational commitment to retire in about 10 years. Replacing this number of nurse managers is a daunting challenge that can only be met by understanding the issues involved and the viewpoint of the managers themselves.

What’s the problem?

The role of nurse managers relate to both management (mobilizing people and resources) and leadership (influence and vision), while they contend with a variety of role stressors and challenges. The widespread availability of personal communication devices lends a sense of being available 24-hours a day, 7 days a week without a break. Working in intense human relations situations 10-12 hours per day with an increasing span of control and dealing with complex issues typically outside of the manager’s control contributes to overall stress.

Nurse manager workplace demands include increasing numbers of direct reports, decreased resources, decreased clinical involvement, increased staff diversity, increased coordination across differing nursing units, issues with assistive personnel, changing regulatory requirements, and the need for new management skills coupled with the increasing complexity of hospitalized patients. The time consuming demands of staffing, however, have been reported to be the manager’s greatest challenge, precluding ability to be visible, build relationships with staff, and allow time to engage in those activities directly related to constructing a committed, retained staff.

What nurse managers say

Zastocki asked a group of 188 nurse managers to comment about their jobs. Many of the comments provided were related to challenges encountered in the work environment. Many of the nurse managers felt disempowered, inadequate, and ignored, resulting in widespread feelings of dissatisfaction and intent to leave. Here is a sample of some of their comments:

The role…must be re-evaluated given turnover rate and dissatisfaction. Nurse manager frustration is ignored. The position has become increasingly difficult to fill adding more stress and responsibility to those who are then asked to cover additional units.

I have learned my responsibilities through negative feedback. (I am) made (to) feel inadequate and unable to reach expectations. Rarely is any positive feedback given. With many staffing deficits, I have to work the unit to maintain patient safety. No allowances/exceptions for report deadlines are given. Nor is any assistance offered to complete reports. I am expected to work late (using personal time) without compensation. I am expected to work weekends, evenings and nights if an RN calls out and there is not other RN available for straight pay. At times the demands seem abusive … there’s no balance between work and family.

I do not believe the nurse executives understand the demands (of the nurse manager role). Manager satisfaction is much neglected; creative ideas to embrace and improve are ignored…

Mutual respect is absent. Example: suggestion presented to offer nurse managers a 10-hour day, having the assistant nurse manager cover on the fifth day. Managers do not work an 8-hour day. This compounds the many job responsibilities and decreases satisfaction. When this was suggested an immediate “NO” was the response, what a poor message.

Executives need to take note that the nurse manager role is the adhesive that holds the organization together, keeps goals in sight, drives patient care, advocates for staff, patients and families, and gets the least recognition for their contribution.

Lack of support and the demands of an increasingly regulated environment were other predominant themes in this group of nurse managers. Nurse managers are also saying:

Other departments seem to have more assistants than the nursing management team. I think the whole culture of nursing expects this level of management to “walk on water”, and do the impossible, with additional coverage of other units as a standard part of “other duties as assigned”.

What makes me want to leave this job is the fact that, with the ever-increasing demands of finances and regulatory requirements, there have been no additional resources added. It has gotten worse over the 20 years I have been in this job and at this point I seriously think about leaving this role.

As a nurse manager I feel I have no support… and there is no accountability for anyone’s actions.

Too many reporting statistics programs limit time to do important things like round with patients and staff meetings. As long as report are completed, doesn’t matter how other tasks are completed, usually meaning additional non paid work hours taking away from personal life. If could go back in time and change decision to become nurse manager, would not do it again.

What can be done to retain nurse managers?

Nurse manager studies on creating healthy workplaces suggest desirable components include a framework of shared leadership, participatory management, relationship building, development of nurse managers, evaluation of role expectations, and empowerment.

Predominant themes from Zastocki’s survey that are consistent with the review of the nursing literature are work-life balance, support, acknowledgement, opportunities growth with support for education, role expectations. Additional themes on the importance of the chief nurse executive role and the impact of tenure and employee benefits as investments in the organization were also consistent with the literature.

These findings are supported by the nurse manager engagement study by Mackoff and Triolo, which found six elements for future nurse manager engagement. These were:

  • Work/life balance
  • Strong physician/nurse relationships
  • Socialization and education
  • Designated mentorship
  • Compensation to reflect contribution and diminish stress
  • Reduction and division of workload.

Here is a summary of what nurse managers want, based on the Zastocki survey:

Work-life Balance

More time off

Variable scheduling

Flexibility in scheduling

Limits to being on-call


Clerical support

No expectation for assuming secretarial duties such as distributing flyers and paperwork to staff

Budgetary advice and support

A charge RN without a clinical assignment on all shifts


Recognition of the difficulty of the role

Accountability from other departments

Respect from the CNO/Nursing Director


Salary commensurate with job responsibilities

Greater tuition reimbursement


Encouragement of creative solutions

Empowerment to make change


No micromanaging

Ability to make needed change

Creating healthy work environments requires a committed participative process for evaluating role options essential to nurse manager retention and recruitment. Personal resources, social support, and mentoring are combination strategies that take into consideration individual nurse manager needs for personal development and for the types of social/professional network(s) considered supportive. An immediate, low-cost hospital action may be hardiness training to provide emotional support to the nurse managers.

Nurse managers need to accept individual responsibility to seek resources that nurture their well-being. Options such as job sharing and separating clinical and administrative roles may work in some organizations. Strategies for stress management, role expectations and role redesign, and processes for creating healthy workplaces, need to be evaluated both in response to broader healthcare and workforce trends as well as within organizational culture and constraints. While recruiting new nurse managers is essential, it’s equally important to retain experienced nurse managers as part of the succession plan of the nurse executive.

Nurse executives need to reflect on those leadership behaviors that are viewed as more supportive by nurse managers and begin discussion on the predominant themes of work expectations, work-life balance, workload and role expectations, support, education and growth opportunities, acknowledgement and respect for contributions to the organization, and compensation. Beginning the discussion is the first step in acknowledging change must occur to retain committed and engaged nurse managers. This dialogue can provide the platform for succession planning and broader discussions with different age cohort nurses earlier in their careers who may consider nurse manager roles in the future. Succession planning is an immediate imperative; given the reported average age of the nurse manager is 45 years. Supporting discussion of creating healthy work environments can also establish a culture of support and a basis for long-term organizational change.

Time to act

Support, empowerment, and the ability to make change in a timely manner are essential to retaining the nurse manager. Empowerment should be evaluated as part of the organizational culture as an influence on nurse manager perceptions of control, support, and their ability to address role expectations and demands. Organizational leadership should develop an ongoing process and an environment where nurse managers participate in this creative process.

Succession planning that uses focus groups with potential nurse managers may prove helpful in evaluating job design, role expectations, and workload. Options such as job sharing or separating clinical and administrative roles require organizational assessment for organizational fit. Organizational support in creating healthy work environments and commitment to an ongoing process to continue to evaluate options and explore new models are essential to retention.

Educating hospital leadership concerning the critical nature of the nurse manager role, projected shortages, and the need for support for organizational change is a major challenge for the nurse executive in financially constrained hospitals. Developing opportunities for education, growth, and mentorship require assessment of the basic competency levels of nurse managers, support of academic achievement at the master’s degree level, horizontal growth opportunities, and ongoing continuing education, and supportive professional networking. The time for committing to action is now. Nursing leaders need to take ownership, perhaps albeit small incremental change initially, of creating the future environment. Focusing on the many circumstances outside of one’s control will result in a leadership crisis in the near future.

In a recent study, senior leaders were challenged to support nurse managers in the following ways:


“know which leader behaviors make the difference and support managers in carrying them out; help the manager deal with polarities; help the manager set realistic boundaries; negotiate for a strong supportive role from Human Resources; remove organizational barriers to results; encourage managers to develop a supportive network; listen to what the managers tell you; and encourage managers to learn from each other…” (Manion, 2005; p. 54).

The nurse executives’ understanding of what is important to nurse managers individually, and collectively, remains a critical component in designing organizational strategies. Although many nurse managers are in later career stages, the recruitment of new managers requires strategic planning for organizational supports and individualized development plans with mentors for each manager.

The recent work of Mackoff and Triolo on nurse manager engagement provides a resource with suggested applications. Implementing strategies to manage work experiences at entry into the organization and at entry into the nurse manager position may prove more effective for enhanced affective commitment and perceived organizational support.

Deborah Zastocki RN, MEd, DNP, is president & CEO of Chilton Memorial Hospital in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. Cheryl Holly RN, EdD, is associate professor and director of the New Jersey Center for Evidence Based Practice and director of the DNP Program at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, School of Nursing in Newark.

American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE). Acute care hospital survey of RN vacancy and turnover rates in 2000. 2002. American Organization of Nurse Executives, Washington, DC, USA.

Aroian J, Horvarth K, Secatore J, Alpert H, Costa M, Powers E, & Stengrevics S. Vision for a treasured resource: part 1, nurse manager role implementation. Journal of Nursing Administration. 1997;27:(3):36-41.

Fletcher C. Hospital RN’s job satisfaction and dissatisfactions. Journal of Nursing Administration. 2001;31(6):324-331.

Flynn L. The state of the Nursing Workforce in New Jersey: Findings from a statewide survey of registered nurses. 2007. Newark, NJ: New Jersey Collaborating Center for Nursing.

Havens D. Comparing nursing infrastructure and outcomes: ANCC magnet and nonmagnet CNEs report. Nursing Economics. 2001;19(6):256-266

Mackoff B, Tiolo P. Project report: creating a model of nurse manager engagement: A Qualitative study of long-term outstanding nurse managers. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 2007. Princeton, NJ.

Mackoff B, Triolo P. Why do nurse managers stay? Building a model of engagement. Part 1, dimensions of engagement. Journal of Nursing Administration. 2008;38(3):118-124.

Mackoff B, Tiolo P. Why do nurse managers stay? Building a model of engagement. Part 2, cultures of engagement. Journal of Nursing Administration. 2008; 38(4):166-170.

Manion J. Supporting nurse managers in creating a culture of retention. Nurse Leader. 2005;April, 52-56.

Meyer J, Stanley D, Herscovitch L, Topolnytsky L. Affective, continuance, and normative commitment to the organization: a meta-analysis of antecedents, correlates, and consequences. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 2006;61:20-52.

Parsons M, Cornettd P, Golightly-Jenkins C. Creating healthy workplaces: laying the groundwork by listening to nurse managers. Nurse Leader. 2006;June (34):34-39.

Rudan V. Where have all the nursing administration students gone?: Issues and solutions. Journal of Nursing Administration. 2002;32(4):185-188.

Shirley MR, Fisher ML. Leadership agenda for change toward healthy work environments in acute and critical care. Critical Care Nurse. 2008;28(5):66-79.

Thorpe K, Loo R. Balancing professional and personal satisfaction of nurse managers: current and future perspectives in a changing health care system. Journal of Nursing Management. 2003;11:321-330.

Waldman J, Kelly F, Aurora S, Smith H. The shocking cost of turnover in health care. Health Care Management Review. 2004;29(1):2-7.

Zastocki D. A Study of the relationships among nurse managers’ organizational commitment, perceptions of nurse executive leadership behaviors and intent to stay. 2008. NJ: UMDNJ Unpublished Capstone.


  • Most hospitals are doing away with the nurse manager role. I believe there should be two nurse managers in a unit. The workload and time constraints would Be less. There is Director, head nurse (probably the same responsibilities as a nurse manager with less pay), an assistant nurse manager in some facilities. It’s sad because there have been some great people in that role. As an assistant manager, I don’t look forward to it.

  • I agree with the previous comments whole hardheartedly. Nurse managers are treated very poorly and from every angle beginning with the CEO and the CNO. However, I believe the biggest problem is the nurse managers themselves. We tolerate the abuse. Our egos are wrapped up in the role because we consider it a step up. We pursue higher and higher levels of education training to feed this monster that pushes us to neglect our families and ourselves

  • Hello,
    What a wonderful and interesting topic. I`m doing my master these on stress and coping among nurse managers. But I couldn`t find a specific tool to use for measuring the stress.I`m thinking to create a tool myself but I need the factors that affect the stress to adapt it on the tool. Can you help me to find a tool or to develop a new tool for this purpose?

  • I was an administrator who worked with nurses to find a way to empower them to have control over their work place, not a culture that my peers or nurses seem to want. Yes it has been a while since there has been the ability to make decisions around what you want your work life to be like. It took three years to build trust –in the end – several told me it was too much work to have to think about the impact of the change and all the other crap that came along with it. My sense is that there was

  • It hasn’t changed in 16 yrs and won’t. Asked to do more then take support away when you succeeed. Hourly I make less than a brand new grad does! My opinion may be asked about important decisions once in a while but it is just for show. It doesnt matter how successful or how high my patient staff or physician satisfaction scores are- still no recognition. When Directors say they are going to help it usually ends up more work fixing their mess! I would not chose this path if i could go back!

  • All talk, no action. Exact same studies/outcomes we’ve been reading about for some 20 years now. Show me one, just one health care executive with the guts to initiate any of the changes needed and the patience to see it through to fruition. Won’t find any – none will take the “risk” of being a long term, creative thinker/problem solver. All are in it for the short haul – today’s “dollar” at the expense of tomorrow’s future.

  • AMEN!

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