October 31, 2020

National Nurses Week: Celebrating Nurses and Nursing With Genuine Admiration

As I write this, we are on the threshold of another National Nurses Week. The annual recognition week begins on May 6 and ends on May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale. May 12 has also been named International Nurse Day. Also recognized annually are National Student Nurses Day on May 8 and National School Nurse Day on the Wednesday within National Nurses Week. As a wound and ostomy care nurse, I also recently celebrated WOC Nurse Week April 14-20. So, what is the big deal with all of these recognition events? In the midst of our celebration, do we remember what is most important?

I have always been stricken by the tendency of the nursing profession to identify and mark events and milestones in the field. While in nursing school, there were a white coat ceremony, an anointing of hands, a pinning ceremony, and of course graduation. In licensed professional life, there are national and specialty-specific events as well as staff recognition efforts within health care organizations.

It is intriguing to consider the impetus behind these recognition events and celebrations. So many of them seem to represent efforts by nurses themselves to focus on nurses and nursing, an arrangement that causes me to ask why that is the case. It seems intuitive that the most genuine recognition should originate outside that which is recognized.  So I have never been quite certain how to interpret nurse-initiated recognition of nurses generally or of the nursing profession generally. Despite that, in defense of this nurse-initiated recognition, we must understand that nurses are otherwise simply people, and many of them have experienced as members of the general public the very things that are celebrated in National Nurses Week and other events. Thus, we cannot discount that recognition of nurses is well-deserved.

However, I suspect much if not a majority of the recognition that comes from within the nursing profession originates at the managerial or executive level. Given the contemporary health care milieu in all its complexity, including the fiscal and labor relations dynamics that exist, it is not difficult to imagine that there may be mixed motives behind the recognition of staff by managers and executives. It is quite possible that special recognition events like National Nurses Week may serve nursing managers’ and executives’ aim of increasing staff morale and job satisfaction, which may in turn improve staff retention. This is not necessarily wrong or disingenuous; it is simply an aspect of the relationships between people in health care organizations.

I also notice that much of the recognition in nursing requires marketing, both internal and external. I doubt most nurses would be able to tell you when National Nurses Week is, let alone the dates of any number of other nursing-related recognition events. Assuming they have even heard of National Nurses Week, most nurses experience the week as minimally different from any other work week. This might suggest that genuine and meaningful staff recognition requires more than the occasional catered meal or private-label token gift to be effective. As I have mentioned previously, culture change is possible but expensive, and few are willing to pay the cost.

As we celebrate nurses and nursing, let us remember what is most important in our work and why we do what we do as nurses. As careers go, nursing pays relatively well, but being able to support my family is only one of many reasons I became a nurse. In the midst of serial job losses, the availability of an accelerated nursing program was a blessing. For someone who has made the transition to nursing from another career, the relationship between nursing and that prior career was important to maximize career continuity. Despite these, the single most important reason for my entry into nursing was the aspect of ministry in nursing. In fact, I have discovered that many of the reasons I have previously wanted to attend seminary are identical to reasons I entered nursing. I have no doubt there are many other reasons people become nurses.

Take time this week–and every week thereafter–to assess your nursing life. Recognize your success and the success of other nurses. Be a nurse who celebrates nurses and nursing. However, in the midst of your celebration, let your enthusiasm always flow from a genuine admiration for the vital work of nursing. Happy National Nurses Week 2019!

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