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Employee Engagement: Reconnect Staff to Caring's Meaning and Purpose

By Susan Edstrom, MS, BSN, RN, Consultant, Creative Health Care Management

I remember vividly my first experience as a patient at age 14, hospitalized for surgery to remove a lump in my breast—I was terrified! Years later, I still remember how I felt with one particular nurse. I don’t recall her name, but I remember her eyes. She saw my fear, and the way she looked at me let me know that everything would be OK. She always knew how to calm me; she allowed me to feel safe and cared for.

She is the reason I became a nurse.

I’ve heard similar stories over the years as I facilitate the three-day program Re-Igniting the Spirit of Caring (RSC). I believe most people working in healthcare are there because they want to help others. In today’s chaotic, task-driven healthcare environments, many staff members are disengaged and suffering from varying degrees of compassion fatigue. I believe this is because people have lost their connection to the core purpose of the work they do.  The science of caring is as important to patients as the technical and clinical knowledge and skills we bring. After listening to countless patients relate their personal hospital experiences during the RSC program, not one has reported that a caregiver’s clinical skills are what were most important. In their minds, those skills were a given, and it was the acts of caring that were most important in creating a positive experience for them. Compassionate care promotes healing and helps people feel safe and cope with their illness. Caring is not a “soft skill” and it’s far from optional; it’s what patients tell us they want most.

In my work as a facilitator of RSC, I’ve discovered several practical things that all caregivers can do to reconnect or connect more deeply with their purpose:

  • Engage others in conversations about caring. Use appreciative questions at department/unit meetings, reports, and in conversations in the hall. What are the behaviors that demonstrate caring? What do we want care to look and feel like for patients on our unit? What would we want for ourselves or our loved ones? Talk about a time of which you are most proud, when you provided care that you know made a real difference to a patient and family. What were the circumstances? What did it take?
  • Dispel the myth that there isn’t time to really care. Compassionate caring is not about time. It’s a mindset that allows us to be fully present to another. It isn’t something more to do; it’s a way of being and a way of doing. In order to cultivate a caring way of being, center yourself before entering a patient’s room while hand washing, by touching the door jam, or taking a deep, mindful breath and committing to really making a connection: “I will be fully present to this person.”
  • Sit at the bedside for 5 minutes at the beginning of a shift and really connect. Introduce yourself and explain your role and what you will be doing. Ask the patient “What’s the most important thing I can do for you today?” Really listen and follow up. If you take the time to listen, you’ll save time in the end.
  • Incorporate caring for colleagues into daily practices. Start each shift in a staff huddle, having everyone “check in” about how they are today, being aware of who may need help or support.  Find ways to affirm and appreciate others’ contributions and acts of caring for patients and colleagues.  When we acknowledge and care for one another, it helps us care for others.
  • Be impeccable with your language.  We objectify people when we use labels, referring to them as “the knee in bed 2,” the “frequent flyer,” or the “demanding family member.”  The way we talk about patients affects whether we see them as people.

These are some simple practices that any caregiver can integrate into daily practice in order to help reconnect with the meaning and purpose of caring. The impact they have in helping to create a positive patient/family experience will help facilitate healing, positively influence the patient’s experience, and help keep caregivers focused on what matters most.

Susan knows how important that commitment to caregiving is; she’s a nurse with more than 30 years of experience as a staff nurse, nurse practitioner, educator, and health care leader. She has a BSN and MS in public health from the University of Minnesota. While she’s no longer providing direct care to patients herself, her goal in her role as a consultant at Creative Health Care Management is to re-ignite a passion for caring in those who do.

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