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The Heart of a Nurse: Why Nurses Do What They Do

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

Why do nurses feel such a dedication to their profession? Nursing is not just a job, but an opportunity to help people through some of their most joyous and worst moments.

Experts point to a number of the factors that influence nurse motivation, including what first attracted us to the field and what keeps us coming back, despite daily obstacles and stressors:

The ability to make a difference

Debra Wise Matthews: The desire for a meaningful career is central to nurse motivation.

“Nursing is a calling, and people who value a meaningful profession and want to make a difference play into it,” said Debra Wise Matthews, PhD, RN, associate dean for Academic Affairs at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing in Bryan, Texas. “It’s a challenging career, and another appeal is it is very diverse, at least at the undergraduate level.”

Many students choose nursing because they care about people and want to help. And over time, nurses come to appreciate the core values acquired as they spend time in the profession and honor their ethical obligations, Matthews suggested.

“It’s the approach to how we nurse, and that’s what keeps us there,” Matthews said. “It’s an embodiment of those values.”

A commitment to serve others

The commitment to people and families, advocating for others and protecting the health, safety and rights of people, motivate many nurses.

“Nurses, in general, care about social justice and improving health, which includes not only biophysical, but social, psychological and environmental aspects,” said Ellen Olshansky, PhD, RN, WHNP-BC, FAAN, professor and founding chair of the University of Southern Ellen Olshansky: Nursing careers can impact individual and community health.California’s nursing department in Los Angeles. “They see their work as more than a job, but a career with profound meaning to provide a holistic approach to the field.”

Margaret O’Donnell, DNPs, ANP, FNP, BC, FAANP, a senior nurse practitioner at South Nassau Community Hospital in Oceanside, N.Y., and the southern New York State representative for the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, urged nurses to be proactive in their professional organizations.

“It helps keep me in charge of my own profession and have a sense of empowerment about nursing,” O’Donnell said.

Meaningful connections

The ability to connect with other people in a meaningful way keeps many nurses motivated and in the profession.

“I love the interaction with families,” said Tonyie Andrews-Johnson, RN, C-EFM, HN-BC, associate nurse manager at the Karmanos Birth Center at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, Michigan. A nurse for 12 years, Andrews-Johnson enjoys every patient’s story.

“It never gets old,” Andrews-Johnson said. “Patient-centered care fuels my passion.”


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Caring for patients and families has kept Alison Parise, RN, BSN, at the bedside for 27 years. She works on the infusion floor at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Alison Parise has enjoyed a 27-year nursing career helping children and families

“I love the kids and the families and the new people I meet,” Parise said. “I see many patients over and over and am able to establish a rapport with them. I can give my all.”

Continually learning and reinventing our nursing careers

Nursing offers nurses an opportunity to practice in different settings and different specialties. Shifting gears often requires learning new things.

“Application of the knowledge is where a lot of people find value,” Matthews said.

Whether you choose full- or part-time staff nursing, per diem nursing or travel contracts, bedside nursing offers an opportunity to affect people’s health one at a time. And nurses who transition into management or teaching have an opportunity to make a difference to an even greater number of people, Matthews added.

When nurses care too much

Despite the many benefits of the profession, nursing can be stressful and the outcomes may not be what we tried our best to deliver. A study about compassion fatigue in nurses by Elizabeth A. Yoder, MSN, RN, at Goshen General Hospital in Goshen, Ind., found nurses typically react in one of two ways to stress. Some try to put walls around themselves and disengage to avoid troubling situations, while others engage more. How best to re-energize depends on the individual. For some, it might be spiritual, for some nature, Matthews explained. She encourages nurses to frame their work in a positive way and take care of yourself.

Andrews-Johnson is also a firm believer in self-care for nurses, adding, “If you take better care of yourself, you will take better care of your patients.”

The rewards are many

There are also monetary rewards in the nursing profession, and nurse salaries will depend on license, educational level and specialty. But most nurses treasure their careers for other reasons. The AMN Healthcare 2015 Survey of Registered Nurses found nurses love nursing, are proud of their career choice and would recommend it to others.

“Nursing is one of the most rewarding careers anyone could have, as nurses make a true impact on the lives of individuals, communities and society,” Olshansky concluded.


Make meaningful connections with nursing jobs that suit your terms; Nursefinders, an AMN Healthcare company, has local per diem nursing jobs, contract nursing jobs, and more. Find an office near you or apply today to get started with a nurse staffing expert.



© 2016. AMN Healthcare, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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2014 AMN Healthcare, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction and distribution of these materials is prohibited without the expressed written authorization of AMN Healthcare, Inc.

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