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Millennial nurses chart new territory for health care profession

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Close your eyes, and picture a nurse at work. What do you see? An older person with a nursing cap, eye glasses resting on the nose, and pen in hand while studying a patient’s chart?

Or, do you see a younger person, no hat, no eye glasses resting on the nose, holding a smart phone and tapping furiously to update the patient’s chart?

There is no right answer. Both exist, and both are learning about and from each other.

“I think what millennials bring to our world is fresh eyes on how to look at patient care with technology supporting us, as opposed to being a barrier,” said Surani Hayre-Kwan, director of professional practice and nursing excellence for Sutter Health. “That has been a huge change.”

It’s one of several changes that will continue as millennials are now the largest generation of workers in the U.S. labor force, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from 2017, the most recent available.

Millennial nurses tend to work at a fast pace, seek work-life balance and strive for new opportunities to advance their knowledge and careers. That is the takeaway for several nurse leaders interviewed for this story.

“Most millennials are overachievers,” said Wendi Thomas, director of nursing services at Petaluma Valley Hospital, part of the St. Joseph Health Northern California system. “The expectations in the world these days are so great that most millennials that come in here are not satisfied. They want more degrees, to be on committees and find ways to add more credentials to their names.”

Like their counterparts, however, younger nurses are by and large hard workers.

“I have to say, the millennial generation has this incredible sense of commitment to the work that they’re doing,” Surani Hayre-Kwan said. “They are very devoted to the role of being a nurse.”

“I think we all share the same work ethic, (though) our expression of it may show up differently,” said Vicky Locey, chief operating and nursing officer of Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa. “Our goal is to find that common ground.”

As an example, she said, younger nurses are typically more focused on how their work schedule fits into their life, whereas, it’s the other way around for more seasoned nurses.

“It’s a different approach but at the end of the day, each brings tremendous value to the health care team and remains dedicated to the care of the patient.”

“I love learning from my mentors; they’re an absolute resource,” said Teresa Hartline, a 27-year-old nurse working in the obstetrics department at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. “In general, nursing is always changing. Every day I have a question to talk over with a nurse. It’s joining two ideas together to make the best solution together.”

Separately, Hartline said she would like to see older nurses be more adaptable to change.

“I think one of the biggest things I see in the industry is a lot of grumbling about change and processes and everything,” she said. “I think millennials in general are more, ‘Hey, this might work better,’ while others think, ‘It always worked that why and there’s no need to change.’”

Indeed change is good, but sometimes it comes down to brass tacks, even pulling out books such as “Notes on Nursing,” by Florence Nightingale,” Thomas said.

“I often pull that book out when I meet with nurses to let them know those things still work: paying attention to patients, maintaining confidentiality, cleanliness,” she said. “As much as technology helps, some of these things are traditional and still ring true today.”

Thomas said new nurses are sometimes surprised by the educational benefits contained in that book, such as the importance of keeping sheets under the patient in order to avoid bed sores.

Older nurses also work closely with younger nurses to ensure they stay tuned in to the sick patients and their needs while in the hospital, something Thomas distinguishes as “big sick” and “little sick.”

“As an experienced nurse, I just have that intuition,” she said. “I can look across the room, hear a noise, see a patient and say, ‘big sick’ or ‘little sick.’ It’s hard to teach that so I love seeing when older nurses are able to turn around and teach a millennial to recognize that.”

Secondarily, and woven in to that patient mindfulness, is stressing to young nurses the importance of slowing down to connect with their patients and be present in the moment.

“As nurses, we’re not always dealing with the physical aspect,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it’s the emotional aspect or the financial aspect. It’s important to connect with your patient to see there may be more going on than what meets the eye.”

Slowing down is important, the older nurses agree, but there are instances where younger nurses would rather focus on expediting a situation.

“As I observe and learn from our millennials about communication, a simple text from a physician or colleague may be preferred,” Locey said, “whereas many of our seasoned nurses prefer a face-to-face conversation and relationship building.”

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t acquire something new from my nurses,” she said. “As a nurse leader, there is so much to learn from our millennials, their communication styles, how they learn and respond to change. They bring innovation and see the possibilities as endless.”