The Honor Society of Nursing embraces diversity in the broadest sense of the word, including diversity in career paths, educational backgrounds, gender, race, geographic borders and culture.

Nurses from different generations bring a diverse set of skills and perspectives to their working environments.

How to Bridge the Generation Gap

By E. Carol Polifroni

For those working in today's chaotic health care delivery system, challenges face us daily. Compounding these concerns is the apparent generation gap among workers. While the average age of the U.S. nurse is forty-five plus, there are a significant number of nurses who represent generations both younger and older than the baby boomer majority. How can these nurses work together to create a viable organizational environment conducive to longevity, satisfaction, productivity and, most importantly, quality patient care?

The answer lies in participation

Participation is neither new nor a panacea. However, it is what the nurses of today, yesterday and, likely, tomorrow herald as the key to a satisfactory work environment.

Nurses have been taught to focus on the whole, to look at the entire situation and create a plan that becomes greater than the sum of the parts. This holistic perspective enhances patient care outcomes, increases both nurse and patient satisfaction, and differentiates nursing from other professions in the same delivery system.

Yet in the current health care work environment, the patient becomes the entire focus and the organizational challenges to quality patient care are not the purview of the practicing nurse. Last week, a recent graduate suggested to me that bedside care was not in her future because she receives no feedback on how her patients are progressing once they leave the unit. She was not entitled to information regarding the outcome and ultimate welfare of her patients, nor was the system responsive when she asked for greater information and input. She yearned for a greater understanding of management decisions and pondered how management made decisions when she or her colleagues were never asked for their input.

This nurse spoke articulately about needing the whole picture and receiving only the parts. For her, part was a four-letter word with a negative connotation. It did not lend itself to professionalism.

Bringing generations together

The nurses of today, regardless of their generation, want to be involved in how things are structured, how decisions are made, the creation and function of satisfactory work environments, and the establishment and success of quality patient care programs. Administrators can bridge staff members' generational differences by encouraging this participation.

For example, mentoring programs promote participation among different generations and experience levels in the work environment. Younger generations, for example, often benefit from more experienced nurses helping them fit into an organization's culture, understanding the purpose of the existing hierarchy and reasons behind systems already in place. Young nurses entering the workforce today are not the generation who understood and accepted continual schedule changes and did what was asked without question. Nor are they the renegades they have sometimes been painted to be. Mentors can provide a voice and potential action plan for younger, less experienced nurses to participate more fully in patient care and organizational structure - providing increased job satisfaction, retention and improved patient care. Mentors, in turn, often benefit from their younger counterparts' experience with technology, research ability and enthusiasm for learning.

Customization of training is another way to reach different generations and increase participation levels. Ask how your staff would like to learn. Often videotapes and CDs are favored by the technology-savvy generations born after 1969, while personalized classroom learning benefits generations born before 1968.

Administrators are also in the position to motivate their staff to ensure that participation and work quality are optimized. While some generations tend to be motivated more by money, others are most attracted by time-off and flexible schedules. Rather than offering a "one-size-fits-all" type reward system, investigate what is most important to your staff members and motivate them accordingly. A successful program will encourage staff to become increasingly willing to participate fully at your organization.

Nurses of today and tomorrow

Nurses want to be involved. They want to participate in the decisions that affect their patients and themselves. For them, participation is not solely serving on a shared governance council, but rather, receiving information about all aspects of the organizational structure in which they are involved. Participation is the understanding of perspective and looking at a picture larger than a patient and his or her family. It is financial, political and social; it involves staffing, scheduling and home visit issues. In other words, participation is holistic.

If realistic and committed actions are created to allow for and encourage participation, the generation gap becomes less visible and the bridge is built between the generations of nurses delivering exceptional patient care.

This article originally appeared in the fourth quarter 2001 issue of Excellence in Nursing Administration. E. Carol Polifroni, RN, EdD, CNAA, is an associate professor with the University of Connecticut School of Nursing in Storrs, Conn.