By Jennifer Larson, contributor
March 24, 2012 - Does your life feel like a juggling act?
You are not alone. Many people are constantly trying to balance so many responsibilities that they can’t seem to keep up with everything. And nearly 90 percent of the respondents of an online survey conducted by StrategyOne in August 2010 said work–life balance is a problem in the United States--and more than half called it a “significant” problem.
As professionals and caregivers, nurses are consummate multitaskers. But they also have responsibilities that go beyond the hospital or clinic doors. Often, they find themselves staggering under the weight of trying to do too much.
But striving for balance is worthwhile because of your role as what nursing scholar Jean Watson, Ph.D., RN, calls “an agent of healing.”
Karen Drenkard, Ph.D., RN, executive director of ANCC, said, "You're not going to be able to do a good job at work if you feel one domain is taking over the others."
“You can’t give of yourself if you are not whole,” said Karen Drenkard, Ph.D., RN, executive director of the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
Lillian LeBlanc, HR consultant for Baptist Health South Florida , says that progressive employers recognize the need to help employees balance their many responsibilities.
The mindset that people can or should leave everything at the door when they arrive at work is outdated. “That doesn’t exist anymore,” said Lillian LeBlanc, strategic human resources project consultant for Baptist Health South Florida. “We all bring our whole selves to everything that we do, and the progressive employers recognize that.”
And many health care organizations have made strides in implementing programs and policies to help their staff members live healthier lives.
For example, many hospitals have built on-site fitness centers, where employees can exercise for free, and others have developed incentive programs for employees to eat healthier meals. Others, like Baptist Health South Florida, emphasize their employee smoking cessation programs. A growing number of hospitals host weekly farmer’s markets on their campuses to give employees the chance to buy healthy, farm-fresh produce, and still others are participating in the Monday Campaigns, a public health initiative associated with Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Syracuse Universities that promotes certain healthy activities at the start of each week.
But experts say there is still a lot of ground that needs to be covered toward achieving the goal of helping nurses--and other members of the health care team--achieve a better work–life balance.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Eric Heckerson, RN, vice president of operational performance for TeamHealth in Phoenix.
Needed: Flexibility in scheduling and child care
Flexibility in scheduling is often cited as one of the biggest contributors to a better work–life balance. Sixty-percent of the respondents in a 2008 survey of almost 8,000 women working in health care said they desired more flexible scheduling.
A March 2010 report titled “Work–life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility” from the president’s Council of Economic Advisors addressed the issue on a national scale.
The report noted that, “American workers increasingly need to balance employment with other responsibilities.” Employees need flexibility in their scheduling and the number of hours that they work, and they need flexibility in the places in which they do their work. And studies show that employers who offer flexibility benefit, too; they often realize reduced rates of absenteeism and turnover, as well as improvement in productivity and their ability to attract and retain workers.
One of the main components of the ANCC’s Magnet Recognition Program, which highlights hospitals for excellence in nursing, is the Structural Empowerment component which describes “an innovative environment where strong professional practice flourishes.” This component addresses personnel policies and procedures that facilitate this achievement, including “creative and flexible staffing models that support a safe and healthy work environment.”
That could include options for self-scheduling or part-time work, or any number of other possibilities that work for both the nurse and her employer.
The ANCC’s Pathway to Excellence program also recognizes healthy practice environments and the importance of work–life balance. The participating organizations “are very deliberate and very thoughtful about making sure their nurses are whole,” said Drenkard.
Forward-thinking health care organizations with an eye on work–life balance have begun to offer special child care options to employees to relieve them of one major stressor.
Baptist Health South Florida, which was recently included on Working Mother magazine’s list of Best Companies and Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, is regularly lauded for its comprehensive wellness program. But one of LeBlanc’s favorite programs for helping employees balance their work and family responsibilities is their child care program. The system has contracted with Bright Horizons to provide very low-cost, “back-up” care for staffers who need someone to stay with a sick child or an elderly parent.
And because many nurses are women and parents, this service provides a solution to a problem that can impact their work and overall well-being. “They don’t have to carry these burdens to work,” LeBlanc said.
Other hospitals offer similar programs. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s emergency and back-up family care program is called the Just-in-Case Program, which is part of its larger Work/Life Balance Initiative. And the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts has the Parents-in-a-Pinch program, in addition to regular and vacation child care options.
It starts with you
Craig Laser, RN, BSN, president of Laser Performance Consultants, notes that some nurses are under pressure to take on extra shifts, which takes a toll. "Your compassion fatigue really starts to build," he said.
“Your ability to balance your work and life is really up to you,” said Craig Laser, RN, BSN, president of Laser Performance Consultants. “It’s about making choices.”
Heckerson agreed, “I think people really have to step up and be their own advocate.”
That means nurses should speak up when they realize they need help. They should also try to use their paid time off to rest their bodies and brains and recharge their batteries. If they don’t, they run the risk of what Heckerson calls “rust out,” a precursor to burnout. Workers experiencing this may be showing up for work, but they might not be very effective on the job.
Sometimes simply creating a list of top priorities can help an individual focus on what is most important and increase the chances of achieving those goals.
Managers can help, too, by being cognizant of their roles in helping their employees stay on top of things, Heckerson added. They should acknowledge that work–life balance is just as much a part of success as training and development, and check in with their staff regularly on the matter.
“Ask them the question, ‘What are you doing and are you maintaining a work–life balance?’” he said.
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