HealthNovember 22, 2022

How nurse leaders can support the next generation of nurses

By: Lenore Cortez, MSN, RNC
As a new generation of nurses prepares to enter an overworked healthcare industry, experienced nurse leaders can reject old patterns and support students for better patient care.

Anyone in nursing has heard the phrase, "nurses eat their young". When I was in nursing school years ago I didn't understand how this phrase could correlate to professionals who care for other people. How could an experienced nurse be unaccepting of new nurses entering the profession?

As I went through clinical rotations and then became a graduate nurse I experienced the wrath of a couple of nurses who did not want to embrace new ideas. I vowed to not become that type of nurse.

Nursing leadership in different forms

Leadership is a quality that all nurses possess at some level. This skill comes with critical thinking. Not all nurses go into a management role but we all share our knowledge with others. “Leadership is not necessarily tied to a position of authority… (leadership includes) inspiring followers to transform themselves and their situations through development of talents and formation of reciprocal relationships” (Scully, 2015, para 10). We teach our students about the importance of leadership. It is a core class that they must take in order to graduate. For some students this is a scary concept because they are more comfortable being in a “following” role. I have known some really good nurses who were what I would call a silent leader. Their calm demeanor and vast nursing knowledge spoke volumes, making them a great role model for newer nurses.

While not everyone is cut out to lead the masses, most have the ability for quiet leadership. Some nurses may feel more comfortable in a 1:1 conversation, while others enjoy speaking to groups of people. I love the leadership that occurs when a nurse is excited about something new and talks about it with others. This could be talking about a class they are taking as they pursue a higher degree, sharing how they enjoyed using a new technology to treat a patient, or even talking about an interesting healthcare article they read. Creating excitement and an atmosphere of support is a way we can all provide leadership to others.

How is it that some nurses fall short in the area of leadership and become the ones who “eat their young”? Is it because they are burnt out and have nothing left to give to others? Maybe it comes from their experiences as young nurses. I would hope that the nursing students I have taught will go out into the field and be excited to share their knowledge and will also be supported by their more experienced predecessors.

The value of effective communication

One of the core strengths of a good nurse is the power of effective communication. We must feel safe communicating our thoughts and ideas with one another. If we create a hostile environment then our new nurses will not feel they can safely share the ideas they have for improving the care provided to patients.

Forms of interpersonal communication

Communication happens on many levels, speaking face-to-face, through the use of technology (e-mail, individual paging systems like Vocera), body language, and written documentation. According to Cherry (2019) body language can include facial expressions, the gaze, the mouth, gestures, the arms and legs, posture, and personal space (proxemics). We need to be aware of the messages we are sending through the way we present ourselves to others.

In nursing school students must wear a particular uniform, put their hair up, keep makeup and jewelry to a minimum, have clean shoes, and always wear their name badge. Some students do not understand why the dress code is so strict. What we are trying to teach them is that the way they present themselves helps patients to trust their professionalism. This is a very important non-verbal way of communicating.

Clear documentation

Documentation is also something that all nurses must be able to do thoroughly. Students learn what to document early on in school. Students also are expected to write research papers…this is not because faculty love to grade them…but again, as a way to teach students to be effective in their written communication. Think of opening a patient chart and reading the notes that previous nurses and doctors have written. Without good notes the next nurse would not know pertinent information about the care that was, and still needs to be, provided.

It goes without saying that good communication must occur between members of the healthcare team, between the nurse and the patient, and between the nurse and other departments. If effective chain of communication does not occur then it can be difficult for optimal care to be achieved because links have been missed. The same is true in the situation in which the more experienced nurse doesn’t feel it is necessary to share information with a new nurse, thinking it is easier to just do the work by themselves. In the long run this communication style will backfire as there will come a time when the experienced nurse needs the help of the new nurse but the new nurse will not have all the information needed to correctly assist.

Mentoring the next generation of nurses

This is the time of year when many new nurses enter the field. I refuse to be one of THOSE nurses who “eat their young”. I love to share my knowledge with the novice nurses who enter the field wide-eyed and innocent. I take them under wing to give them the support they need as they begin this transition from student to healthcare professional.

Working in the field of Mental Health nursing I have had my share of being talked down to, “We have one of yours to send over from the ED”. I have learned over the years that there still is a lot of fear and stigma surrounding mental healthcare. I want to laugh sometimes at the vision that comes to mind of caring for just the head of a person, when in fact we are caring for the entire body, mind, and spirit. It is very much a holistic practice. We may not insert a lot of IV’s but we recognize when a person is in trouble and needs more urgent medical care than we have equipment to provide on a behavioral health unit.

Since it is difficult to find nurses who want to work in mental health, it is even more important to take the time to answer questions, provide feedback, and offer support to the graduate level nurses who show interest in this nursing specialty. This support will give them the foundation they need as novice practitioners. It also shows them that we look forward to hearing new ideas as these can lead to advocating for positive change.

Mentoring begins with our newest nursing students who are just arriving on campus. Encouraging them every step of the way, with a kind smile, a “great job!”, and being available to answer their questions is how we begin the mentoring process. We can take cues from them as to how to best meet their needs, just as we do with patients, using our observational skills to determine when a student needs a bit of extra help or time learning a new skill.

If you are standing in front of a classroom this semester, take a deep breath and live in the moment. Allow time to talk with them about what is going on in the world. Ask how they are feeling. Ask how you can help. Listen. Be a mentor… always.

Explore how Lippincott can support nurse educators in training and encouraging the next generation of nurses.

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Lenore Cortez, MSN, RNC
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
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