Maybe you’ve noticed—most nurses in their 20s and 30s have a healthy appreciation for balancing work and home life. They want to have time for fun and family, not just work.
In contrast, those of us who entered the profession before the 1980s were motivated in part by altruism, and have been so devoted to nursing that we tend to do whatever it takes to serve patients. During nursing shortages, we’ll work extra shifts and overtime—often with no added incentives—simply out of a compelling sense of duty.
But as nurses age and nursing shortages affect more areas, we see the picture changing. Nurses older than age 50 may find themselves working more hours than they’d like, yet are physically unable to work the long hours they used to. Those with physically demanding jobs may start to scale down their commitment during their early 50s, seeking alternative roles without rotating shifts or relentless physical wear and tear.
For various reasons, nurses of any age may opt to work part time, assuming additional work is always available. Those in the “sandwich” generation—sandwiched between dependent children and aging parents who need care—don’t have the option of working more hours. And the youngest nurses don’t want to spend their lives at work. While healthcare employers have been adapting to a growing percentage of part-time workers, they’re concerned that the part-time trend may compromise continuity of care and staff cohesiveness.
On page 26, the article “Brace yourself—here comes Generation Y” describes the youngest generation of nurses—a high-energy, highly adaptable, tech savvy, well-educated group. The author contrasts it with the large cohort of Baby Boomer nurses who still dominate the work scene. She warns that traditional methods of managing the delivery of nursing care will fail if we don’t address the changing needs of our multigenerational workforce.
Inevitably, making changes will cause frustration. Most of today’s nurse-managers are Baby Boomers with set ideas and expectations about the behavior and performance of professional nurses. Many of these Boomers have made their work their life. But the younger working generations—Generation X in their late 20s to 40s and Generation Y in their 20s—value an active life outside the workplace. They enter the profession expecting to be able to balance work with family, fun, and relaxation.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Across all generations, nurses today are seeking a better balance between work and home. The term work/life balance has crept into our vernacular to describe this ideal state. Wikipedia.com (the website many Generation Y’ers might turn to for the definition) describes work/life balance as “a person’s control over the conditions in the workplace…accomplished when an individual feels dually satisfied about… personal life and…paid occupation.” To put it more succinctly, it means “work to live, don’t live to work.” The literature that addresses ways to improve work/life balance emphasizes the need to reduce workplace stress. So maybe the term work/life balance is simply a 21st-century repackaging of the job satisfaction concept.
Actually, no one can completely separate work from life. Work is part of life, so maximizing one’s satisfaction as an employee benefits both individual and employer. However, the stress of today’s workplace is real and fuels the need for greater balance.
In my view, time is at the heart of the matter: Do we have enough time to do our work well? Do we have enough time for rest and renewal? One of my friends, an executive coach, often reminds me that we should focus on commitment management, not time management. How do we spend our time? What decisions do we make about how we claim or give away our time? Taking control of these decisions can go a long way toward reducing stress.
One reason some nurses seek work outside the hospital is to achieve a healthy work/life balance. America’s hospitals will have to invent new approaches to retain Generation X and Y nurses despite the demands of the 24/7 environment. At the same time, Baby Boomers shouldn’t feel they have to apologize for seeking a work/life balance, which many of them need so they can address family situations or physical limitations affecting their work.
Maybe it’s time for the younger generations to teach us “old folks” some lessons about gaining a balance and having fun.
Pamela F. Cipriano, PhD, RN, FAAN