Nurses are among the most trusted of all professions. Therefore, it is only natural to assume that their customers — the patients and families with whom they provide a healing service — believe in their abilities more than any other profession. Our lives are in the capable hands of a nurse. We experience that the nurse is our trusted partner in life and death and everything in between. The nurse is the liaison with the physician team, with the specialists and with information that is all too often overwhelming.  – Purpose Drives Peformance

We sought to learn about ‘purpose at work’ from the most trusted profession. If we can understand how purpose creates a connection to work for nursing, we can understand the ‘heart’ of purpose as it pertains to any profession or role.

Five key themes define a nurse’s experienced purpose: Identity, Service, Mastery, Autonomy and System. For each day of Nurse’s Week 2016, we will share key insight about each of these themes. Our hope is that individual nurses, nurse leaders  and administrative leaders might be validated and/or glean input into how to elevate a profession that is central to healing, quality-of-life and compassion-at-death experiences.


New Mexico State Nursing Story of many generations of nurses. (Photo: Darren Phillips / NMSU)

We asked nurses in all four generations working today about what gives meaning to their lives, what inspires them and what gives them a sense of purpose. They shared experiences that make up who they are and how they refer to themselves. Identity became a foundational or key theme in connection to a sense of purpose or meaning in work. This theme is defined as self-awareness, self-identification, as how one sees herself in relation to society and others — it is as unique as each person’s fingerprint. It is a combination of who they are innately (nature) and their upbringing, childhood and life experiences (nurture). Identity can only truly be defined by the individual. Therefore any efforts to ‘measure’ Identity must allow for the individualized nature by which it can thrive. We suggest that qualitative and ethnographic approaches work best to understand, honor and derive links to work environment factors.

Six sub-themes are comprise the Identity theme of purpose:

  1. Callinga spiritual need or an inner drive, a compass and a natural instinct to want to learn how to fix problems; this was often ‘known’ from a young age, as something they were born to do; also true for those entering nursing as a second career. 
  2. Environmentfactors such as overcoming strife, an early age illness or loss of a loved one were also part the nurses’ lived experience of purpose; nurturing elements in how they were raised; life events and social norms contributed to the generational-based influence including social (e.g. giving back and gender inequality), political, economical (e.g. tough times vs. prosperous ones) and pop-culture; for nurses in the Silent and Boomer generations few options for careers existed – nursing was an appealing option out of the few ‘available.’
  3. Work Ethicillustration of links to the responsibility of nurturing others is how nurses approach and view work; the mindset about how to go about doing something; a role of contributing to society and all of its people along with a personal mission to practice with integrity; as a Silent generation nurse quoted during our research: “What is most important is to live a life that matters and has integrity.” (Shakespeare) 
  4. Approvalfor work or service given with the full receipt of Approval; to receive physical thanks or positive acknowledgement for service provided, or praise for work well done fostered a stronger sense of purpose.
  5. Appreciationthe ‘yang’ of Approval; a psychological sense of feeling needed; gaining and sustaining acceptance from and the trust of others; extending well beyond peers and expressed as being fostered by ongoing and meaningful interaction with patients and their families.
  6. Rolewhat one does, the nurse role, supports a clear connection to personal purpose; the Role of a nurse is influenced by both individual perceptions of personal and professional life, as well as how others perceive that nurse’s role; fostering a clear sense of purpose or alignment to a nurse’s reason for being; the Role is almost always lived in all parts of life — they’re confident this is the only job for them; also defined as: supporter, advocate, follower, ambassador and caregiver to people.

Individuals and teams that honor these sub-themes through awareness, dialogue and respect can build engagement from authentic investment in individual Identity. From a practice perspective, engagement at work for nurses comes from validation of progress. Feeling energized when everything is accomplished at the right time. The process of “internal performance assessment” serves to define the Identity of being a nurse and drives engagement levels. Valuing one’s own job and knowing that it is worth something, that it makes a difference in the world is engaging and purpose-creating. Identity-driven purpose is pride in being a nurse and fulfilling the needs of life and of death.

Excerpts in this post are talent from Purpose Drives Peformance and experiences in consulting with nurse teams and non-healthcare teams who seek to link individual purpose to the organizational purpose. 

We would love to hear from you about how IDENTITY drives your purpose. How does your leadership empower individual identity in your industry?

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