To understand why nurses leave, maybe we should focus on why they used to stay

Why do we work?

That may seem like a simple question. But for organizations trying to figure out why nurses are leaving their jobs, it may be the question to contemplate.

What attracts and retains employees: cash, career or calling?

Research conducted by Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, organizational behavior professor at Yale University’s School of Management, explains that employees think about work as:

  • A job focused on pay to support family, hobbies and life outside of work (“cash”)
  • A path to success and prestige (“career”), or
  • An integral part of their lives and individual identity (“calling”).

Dr. Wrzesniewski found that employees in most workplaces are evenly divided among these three categories. She also discovered that individuals who have a strong “calling” orientation report higher satisfaction with their lives and work. They are more likely to view and craft their job to fit personal strengths and interests.

As providers organizations try to better understand why nurses are leaving their jobs, recent trends may be deceiving. The flight to higher paying agency jobs seems to suggest that it’s only money that matters. But are short-term attraction factors during the pandemic the same job characteristics that lead to long-term retention and loyalty?

A recent Harris Poll survey, which was conducted across industries, found that only 26% of job changers like their new job enough to stay. The headline in USA Today says it all:

‘I let money get in the way’:  Most recent job quitters have regrets or don’t plan to stay in new role

For healthcare organizations concerned about how they can ever compete with traveler and agency nurse compensation, the results of this poll should help illuminate a clear path.

Now is the time to reconnect to purpose

Our industry is at a critical juncture: the healthcare workforce must be re-engaged and rebuilt. Connection to calling should be one of the primary factors that organizations consider in addition to compensation, benefits, career ladders, and staffing models.

That said, healthcare providers worried about why nurses are leaving cannot and should not take for granted or exploit the fact that many professionals express a calling to their life-saving work. Research from Robert Quinn, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and cofounder of the Center for Positive Organizations, found that a connection to a higher purpose indeed can be powerful. But it only works when connection to purpose is intentional, authentic, and central to how work gets done in the organization.

In other words, nurturing healthcare work as a calling can’t be a gimmick. Leaders must approach this connection to purpose and calling an integral part of the workplace culture.

Additionally, most organizations recognize that workforce attitudes have been changing for years. The stress of the pandemic simply has accelerated changes around how employees think about the relationship between their jobs and personal lives.

Back to Dr. Wrzesniewski’s research, remember that she found that individuals who have a strong “calling” orientation are more likely to view and craft their jobs to fit personal strengths and interests. Incorporating how this generation of professionals define and describe their calling must be at the heart of workforce development plans.

Organizations, especially those in healthcare, must pay appropriately and fairly. But money alone is rarely the reason individuals decide to stay with an organization. Nurturing the calling to serve that most professionals inherently possess should part of the road back from today’s staffing crisis.

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