Are Nurse Leaders Responsible for their Staff’s Happiness at Work?

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Nurse Leader Several years ago, I had a conversation with two nurse managers regarding the challenge of keeping their staff happy.  The novice manager in her first year of leadership practice, lamented that she was unsure if she could ever do enough to keep some of her staff happy.  The more experienced nurse manager, beloved by her staff for her superb leadership, sharp wit and candor, replied that she no longer spends much time worrying about this.  She described how in her early days of leading, some staff frequently came into her office to give her updates on how “everyone was feeling“.  They would tell me that the staff on the unit were not happy.   It did not seem to matter what I did – I still received this feedback.  So when I felt that I had done all that I could, I changed my response and began saying “then you just need to get happy”.  She raised a very important point in telling her story.  Happiness at work is not just the nurse leader’s responsibility.

Why Happiness at Work does Matter

Diane Scott has written a Center for American Nurses Association whitepaper on Happiness at Work.  She has written that not only is there a positive correlation between happiness at work and the individual nurse’s life and professional satisfaction, but there is also a strong business case.  Employee happiness increases productivity, improves retention.  It has also has been demonstrated to improve patient outcomes.  Being happy at work is important to life satisfaction, because so much of our time is spent in the work settting.  There is no one size fits all for staff happiness.

The Nurse Leader’s Responsibility

While nurse leaders cannot make staff happy, they can establish workplace cultures that engage and empower staff – two key components to work happiness.  Building a sense of community among staff is very important, because personal relationships with others at work do impact workplace happiness.  It is also important to staff that the leader demonstrate that they are happy in their own roles. Some key evidence-based leadership strategies that have been demonstrated to increase staff happiness include the following:

  • Provide a clear vision about the work and goals of the organization
  • Value the importance of everyone’s contribution to the work of the unit
  • Listen to staff and make them feel like their opinions matter
  • Give staff autonomy in their work
  • Communicate honestly even during tough economic times
  • Ensure that no-one is working in isolation
  • Establish a culture of celebration of everyone’s successes
  • Don’t tolerate bullying and discourage cliques
  • Treat all team members with the same respect

The Individual’s Responsibility

Srikumar Rao, a Columbia University Professor and author of Happiness at Work, proposes from his research that when we create our own experiences on the job.  Happiness at work is a very individual thing.  Two employees can have very different experiences within the same organization.  Happiness ultimately comes from within, and how we view our circumstances.  If you wait for your manager, your colleagues or your organization to make you happy, nothing will happen.  It is important for the individual to have a clear sense of what makes them happy or unhappy at work, and what actions they can take to change their own situation.

All of us have a strong need to be respected, recognized for our talents, feel a sense of belonging and do work that we feel is essential.  Only an individual staff member can truly know whether they are happy at work and if not, does something need to change.  Nurse leaders can create the environment for staff happiness but may find that some staff are still unhappy.  That is not the nurse leaders responsibility, and it never can be.


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