Healthy Work Environments Matter - How Nurses Can Find One

Nurses devote themselves to the health of others, yet, in an apparent contradiction, many nurses work in unhealthy environments: workplaces that exhibit physical and cultural characteristics that make for an unhealthy place to work. These types of environments can leave you feeling drained after each shift, leading to burnout. When you’re preparing to seek a new nursing position, you can take steps to evaluate the health of a prospective workplace to help you find an environment to thrive in.

Evaluate the Physical Environment

You can start your journey to identifying a healthy workplace by assessing the physical environment where you’ll be working. If possible, walk through the workspace where you’ll be assigned. As you stroll, note your observations:

  • Is the department laid out with efficiency in mind, or will you have to do a lot of unnecessary walking?
  • Do you see cluttered hallways, nursing stations or supply rooms?
  • Are supplies strategically located for easy access?
  • Does the break area provide adequate storage for personal items?
  • Are care supplies thoroughly stocked, or do you see many missing items?
  • Is the physical environment clean?

Look for departments that have been thoughtfully designed to minimize the number of steps you must take each day to care for your patients. Avoid units that appear cluttered or under-stocked, as these could be signs of a poor care culture.

Assess the Organization’s Nursing Culture

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) sets six standards that denote a healthy work environment for nurses. Throughout your interview process, you should ask about each of these standards.

  1. Skilled Communication
    Ask how the organization communicates with its staff, in general. Some organizations publish electronic newsletters that contain general news, while others use an intranet or smartphone app to push news to employees. Look for an organization with a communication style that matches your preferences.

    Also listen to how nurses communicate with each other and other staff members during your walk through the unit, if possible. Professional communication sounds like affirmation and helpfulness and problem-solving. Listen for those type of sounds on the floor or in the office of your prospective employer.

  2. True Collaboration
    Collaboration happens not only interpersonally, between nurses and support staff, but intradepartmentally. Be sure to investigate exactly how collaborative these relationships tend to be within the organization. Does the facility or system have standards and procedures that detail how collaboration – such as the transfer of patients between departments – actually works? Do these procedures work well, according to the staff you chat with?

  3. Effective Decision-Making
    Shared governance should be a given in a modern healthcare organization, but don’t use the existence of a committee as your only yardstick for evaluating whether or not a prospective employer values nurses in the decision-making structure. Peruse the organizational chart to learn how many nurses serve in middle and senior management positions. Ask what types of leadership opportunities will be available to you in your position. Find out how decision-making works in the department you will be working in. Nurses tend to express more professional fulfillment when they feel engaged and empowered to shape policies related to patient care. 

  4. Appropriate Staffing
    During your walkthrough, you may be able to tell whether or not the unit appears to be adequately staffed. Staffing levels can make or break nurse satisfaction, so you should be sure to ask about this during your interview process. If it’s possible to informally chat with a charge nurse or staff nurse, ask them if they tend to be staffed appropriately or not.

    Also evaluate other key staffing-related matters, such as:
  • Does the organization offer self-scheduling for nurses?
  • How is overtime handled?
  • Might you be called on to float? If so, how is that handled?

  1. Meaningful Recognition
    At some point during the interview process, ask how the organization recognizes nurses. The best organizations engage in continual feedback and recognition starting at the department level and extending all the way to the top levels of management. Find out what types of formal and informal recognition processes the organization offers to recognize high achievement.

  2. Authentic Leadership
    AACN defines this standard relative to an organization’s commitment to creating and maintaining a healthy work environment. You can evaluate the broader authenticity of the nursing leaders you encounter throughout your interview process. When you ask questions, do you feel the interviewers offer candid, thoughtful responses? Do they welcome your questions? Do they seem committed to creating a truly healthy work environment for nurses? Do you sense any disconnect between what senior leadership is telling you and what you’re hearing from nurses closer to the bedside?

One simple way to assess how a prospective employer measures up, in terms of healthy work environment, is to ask if they have used AACN’s healthy workplace assessment tool or whether they have ever surveyed their workforce to pinpoint ways they could improve the health of their workplace. Organizations that demonstrate commitment to continual improvement of the work environment may be highly worthy of your consideration as a prospective employer.

About the Author

Elizabeth_Hanes_RNElizabeth Hanes, RN is ‘the nurse who knows' content. She is a freelance writer who combines her knowledge of nursing with over 20 years in journalism. Her unique background brings credibility and authenticity to her writing.