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Empowering Early Career Nurses to be Leaders of Today and Tomorrow

The program, in collaboration with Sigma, aims to help early career frontline nurses in the US and Canada grow their leadership skills such as preparing for difficult situations and advocating for change in the workplace.
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On March 1, I was proud to be part of the team at the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation that launched an ambitious program with Sigma, international honor society for nurses, offering 9,000 nurses across the US and Canada with leadership training. After a successful pilot in 2020, Sigma’s Nurse Empowerment Program hopes to dramatically increase the number of nurses afforded leadership training this year.

Nurses with 5-10 years of clinical experience can enroll in courses to develop skills in influencing, communication, collaboration, conflict resolution and resilience—critical personal leadership skills that can lead to increased job satisfaction, retention, quality of care, and improved patient outcomes.

Why focus on leadership development?

Several studies have shown that while nurses are natural leaders by virtue and their daily proximity to patients, they often aren’t formally recognized as leaders, neither by themselves nor by other healthcare providers. They don’t receive adequate training in leadership skills during their pre-clinical education or during continuing education as formal leadership training is often only reserved for nurse managers and executives rather than viewed as a necessary skill set for all nurses. This prevents nurses from achieving their full potential as transformational leaders in healthcare, as envisioned by the National Academy of Medicine and World Health Organization.

Furthermore, nurses around the world are demanding skills in communication, self-advocacy and influencing especially with their superiors and other types of healthcare providers and are dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities to lead and being viewed as follows rather than leaders.

It’s time to democratize leadership training to all nurses throughout every stage of their career. It’s time for nurses to be empowered with the skills to lead.

Why focus on early career nurses?

The first few years of a nurse’s career is a critical time. Studies show that 20-40% of newly graduated nurses leave their jobs within the first two years of clinical practice. Many factors contribute to this incredible attrition rate: inadequate leadership and management skills of those managing nurses, emotional distress and burnout, lack of professional advancement and opportunities to lead, and pre-clinical education that does not adequately address the realities of healthcare.

With an impending shortage of 500,000 nurses in the US and 10 million globally, health systems must find ways to better retain nurses. There’s also a need for more nurses to assume positions of leadership at the highest levels of health systems, but without more nurses trained in leadership skills at earlier stages of their careers, the pipeline of qualified candidates will remain small.

Retention issues will only be exacerbated by the continued COVID-19 pandemic, with the International Council on Nursing recently reporting that some mid-career nurses plan on exiting healthcare once the pandemic is better under control. This “COVID-19 effect” could potentially increase the anticipated nursing shortage from 10 million to 14 million.

What’s next?

Pre, post, and 3-month follow-up surveys will be conducted to determine how and to what level the courses affect nurses’ perceived leadership abilities and resilience as well as their professional development and advancement. Results will be utilized to determine how to further grow the program in 2022. The goal is to be able to sustainably scale the program to make it accessible to all early career nurses (which amounts to several hundred thousand) and bring other stakeholders on board (e.g., health systems administrators, professional societies, other healthcare providers and policy makers) who have a vested interest in enabling nurses to achieve their highest potential—to improve and redesign the healthcare system and become equal partners in healthcare.

There’s no lack of challenges facing nurses—compensation, burnout, gender discrimination, harassment, understaffing, long work hours, lack of PPE. Leadership training alone won’t directly or fully address these challenges. But by making leadership and resilience training a part of a nurse’s preparation and continuing education, nurses everywhere can more fully embrace their roles as leaders in healthcare from the bedside to the boardroom.