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Professional Identity in Nursing: We Need It Now More Than Ever!

We need federal, state, and institutional leaders to invest in nurses earlier in the pipeline by increasing enrollment and program capacity and providing better resources like technology in the classroom so we can tackle the workforce shortage before it gets any worse.

During the early days of the pandemic, streets across the country were filled with cheers and banging pots as we all celebrated our heroic nurses on their way home. While those days in 2020 uplifted many frontline workers, we’ve unfortunately reached a place where those same nurses are feeling burnt out. We now see stories on newscasts detailing nurses striking, leaving their jobs in the middle of a 12-hour shift, or quietly quitting. And these trends of burnout and turnover can largely be tied back to a lack of professional identity. By fostering professional identity, we can help turn this around.

It turns out that nursing is a profession that encompasses the whole person. Nurses do not stop being nurses when their shift ends. Nurses react and respond to calls for help wherever they go: on the playground with their kids, on a plane traveling on vacation, and even waiting in line at the grocery store. Since it can be impossible to separate the nurse from the person, it’s essential that nurses develop and maintain a strong professional identity, not only to build their confidence and knowledge, but also to flourish as a team member and provide patients with safe, quality care.

As defined by the International Society for Professional Identity (ISPIN), professional identity is “a sense of oneself, in relationship with others, that is influenced by characteristics, norms, and values of the nursing discipline, resulting in an individual thinking, acting, and feeling like a nurse.”  It’s critical in guiding nurses to consistently provide high-quality and safe patient care, allowing them to ensure inclusive, equitable healthcare for all people in every community. Strengthening one’s professional identity increases confidence, self-awareness, job satisfaction, and dedication to the workplace, all of which ultimately translate into safer, compassionate patient care.

While no nurse should ever be put in an unsafe or unwelcoming situation, nurses with strong professional identities are also more likely to be prepared and committed. This allows them to stand up in the face of conflict, use their voices to call for safer care, and uphold the values of the profession through advocacy and communication—whether it’s on the floor of a hospital or in the halls of Congress. Nurses are facing challenges like stress and burnout like never before. By advocating for better treatment and conditions in the workplace, resilient nurses can help strengthen efforts to recruit and retain vital frontline workers.

As a bonus, this benefits all of healthcare by improving the public perception of nurses, including students who are considering entering the field. The U.S. is currently facing one of the worst nurse staffing shortages in history. According to a report by McKinsey & Co., it’s estimated there will be a gap of as many as 450,000 nurses available for direct patient care by 2025 unless we strengthen the nursing pipeline. Nursing is a fulfilling and life-changing profession. It requires knowledgeable, dedicated people who are not afraid of growth and dynamic work settings—but we need more people to see that and choose a career in nursing.

We also need to increase program capacity at nursing schools. With nearly one-in-ten nurse educator positions vacant, how can we hope to get more nurses into the field without ensuring we have enough teachers to prepare them? The stronger the professional identity of nurses in the field, the more robust the pipeline of new nurses we recruit and retain will be.

While professional identity is vital for every nurse to nurture, we also need administrators and policymakers to recognize nurses and acknowledge their important role in our society. We need federal, state, and institutional leaders to invest in nurses earlier in the pipeline by increasing enrollment and program capacity and providing better resources like technology in the classroom so we can tackle the workforce shortage before it gets any worse. That support will take some of the stress off short-handed faculty giving them the time and space to cultivate students’ professional identity so they can enter the field as confident, competent, and safe practitioners. But it’s going to take collaboration with policymakers to get there.

In the face of enormous challenges, nurses are strong. We are skilled. We are survivors. And, by helping each other foster an even stronger professional identity, we can succeed beyond our wildest dreams. But we need all stakeholders, including our policymakers, to help us along the way.

Photo: Kiwis, Getty Images

Dr. Beth Cusatis Phillips is the Strategic Nursing Advisor with ATI and Ascend Learning. Prior to joining ATI, Beth spent 16 years at Duke School of Nursing as Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for Educational Excellence. Beth taught in the ABSN and MSN programs. Beth spent 9 years at Vance Granville Community College where she taught in and directed the ADN/LPN programs. Beth’s clinical practice included 13 years at UNC Hospitals and 6 years at East Carolina University Health, first in med-surg and then Surgical/Trauma ICU.  Beth received her ADN from Waukesha County Technical Institute; her BSN from East Carolina University; her MSN from Duke; and her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

Beth is the chair of the International Society for Professional Identity in Nursing; is a site visitor for the NLN CNEA; and has served as the chair of the CNEA Standards Committee. Beth’s educational/research/presentation interests include faculty orientation, development, and longevity, curriculum development, professional identity in nursing, student decision making, student support and development, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

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