WVU nursing student researches keys to Gen X nurses’ on-the-job happiness

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A West Virginia University nursing student’s Ph.D. dissertation may help solve the nation’s nursing shortage. The five generations in the nursing workforce include Gen Xers, who may be discontented for reasons not easy to measure.

Studying more than 500 registered nurses working at five West Virginia hospitals, Amy Sparks started laying the groundwork to develop a theoretical model to examine psychological empowerment – the meaning and significance nurses’ find in their work lives.

Before she is done she will study nurses across the country.

“We have a severe nursing shortage,” Sparks said. “We need to retain the nurses we have, and we need to recruit new nurses. Gen X is fleeing the nursing industry even though the benefits are the same and the pay is the same.”

What might be missing is the feeling that “I matter.”

“Feeling competent and feeling meaningful is important to people feeling satisfied,” she said.

While Baby Boomers and Gen X nurses register identical levels of job satisfaction, Baby Boomers report higher psychological empowerment scores, Sparks found. She presented her findings to the Southern Nursing Research Society in Baltimore earlier this year.

Sparks hypothesized that happy nurses will stay in their jobs. But “happy” can mean different things to different people, including how competent, valued and autonomous they feel and how involved they feel in decision-making.

She concluded, “Whether or not the nurses’ values are perceived to be fulfilled may be the influential link in perceived job satisfaction. This could explain why studies have reported significant differences in what nurses value among generations but inconsistently find differences in job satisfaction.” 

Generations differ in work styles such as autonomy, work ethics, involvement, views on leadership – and even their views on what constitutes innovation, quality and service, Sparks wrote.

“When I graduated as a nurse in 2001 from WVU, I was so excited,” Sparks said. “I was very enthusiastic. I wanted to be the best nurse on earth. When I started working, I found it very challenging. It was very different from what I had learned when I was in school. I looked around, and I was in the same situation and the same work environment as my colleagues and, some nurses were happy and some were not happy. Some are leaving not only the job but the profession, and that’s very disturbing.”

In her first job, Sparks wondered why nurses of a certain age tended to be happier than others. Her model is testing why that is with an eye toward helping nurse leaders be more effective at helping nurses of different ages work together. Learning more about psychological empowerment could also help human resources place nurses in jobs where they would be happiest.

“My goal is to test this model and then start testing different strategies for finding meaning in their workplace,” she said. “My hope is we can see what people value, and we can capture where the difference is and help people get along with each other and relate to each other.”

She may be breaking ground.

“Right now there isn’t a theoretical model that involves generations,” she said.
“No one has looked at, ‘Do generations differ in psychological empowerment?’ ”

Sparks earned her undergraduate degree in 2001, then a master’s degree in 2004. She hopes to complete her Ph.D. degree in 2011.

For information about the School of Nursing see http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/son/.


For more information:
Andrea Brunais, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
CM: 09-14-09

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