Nicole Nash-Arnold

Nicole Nash-Arnold

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Nicole Nash-Arnold is a nursing career coach who helps great nurses transform into respected leaders.She shares her 15 years of experience in both senior and executive health leadership roles to germinate great leadership.Clinically, Nicole has over ten years perioperative experience before moving into her nurse educator and management roles.
Nicole Nash-Arnold

How to leverage age diversity to create places people love to work

Let’s be honest: as nurses, we don’t make diversity in the workplace a priority.

It’s not that we’re racist or sexist or ageist. I’m talking about the way we struggle with other sorts of diversity—the reality that not everyone thinks and processes the world the same way as we do. We nurses flock together with like-minded thinkers.  And if other nurses or managers or doctors that we interact with think differently than us, we’re pretty quick to dismiss them as goats.

But healthcare is not only a team sport, it’s a contact sport. We’re knocking up against each other all the time. If we’re going to work together effectively, we have to understand that some of us don’t tick like the others.

Research shows that an understanding of diversity—whether it’s cultural, gender, cognitive or generational—will build trust, and when you’ve got trust, you’ve got collaboration. So it’s vital that nurses get a handle on this. And one type of diversity that’s guaranteed to be an issue in any nursing environment is generational diversity.

Nursing is a unique place to work because, unlike in many other industries, we can easily be working with all four different generations on any given shift.  Our nursing workforce is made up of Veterans (6%), Baby Boomers (46%), Gen X (35%) and Millennials (13%). Each generation brings a completely different worldview.  And those differences in worldviews can bring frustrations.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard nurses say things like “Those young nurses: they don’t like to get their hands dirty”. Or, “The older nurses are so stuck in their ways and resistant to change”.  That kind of divide is the demon of building a profession that delivers a culture of success, free from disharmony.  But if we embrace generational diversity, we create richer teams where nurses want to stay.

The four gens have very different ideas about what it means to be a nurse. Their attitudes, beliefs, work habits and role expectations differ vastly.  For Veterans nursing is a vocation, not a job (think Call the Midwife). The Baby Boomers started approaching their work as a career, which filtered down to Gen X, who see nursing as a profession, not a calling. Millennials…well, they value employability over employment.

Imagine a veteran nurse in a room with a millennial: the vet’s there to fulfil her life’s calling, and the millennial is going, “Oh, I’m thinking about switching to five-day fortnights.”  This millennial sees himself as a free agent who believes job security lies only in leveraging his own skills and knowledge. In contrast, the vet is the epitome of the hardworking, disciplined, loyal employee who respects authority and the hierarchy that she’s dedicated her life to as a passionate idealist.  Not a lot of common ground there.

The average age of a nurse in Australia is 47, which means that the average age of a nurse manager is possibly higher than that. It’s not a surprise that many managers find millennials impossible to work with. But it’s time to embrace them for their strengths, and start thinking about what we can offer them. Working in one hospital is much like working in another; but millennials are seeking something special. If nurse managers want to attract quality staff from younger generations, they need to create a place that has that “something special”.

This is where generational diversity comes in.  Consider you’re coordinating a shift on a Saturday evening in an garden variety orthopaedic ward somewhere in Australia.  You’re almost certainly going work with a baby-boomer and a GenX, probably a Millennial, maybe a Veteran.  Having your head around this will make or break your ability to lead this team well. If you can leverage their diversity, you’ll get to the end of the shift with happy, safe patients and a team that feels fulfilled. They might even have fun!

So on your garden-variety orthopaedic ward, let’s say the unit is going through a change management process, changing the model of care to team nursing. Each generation is going want to navigate that change differently. If you, as a manager, can understand how they each like to be led, you can turn that team into a powerhouse of cooperation—even though they’re all so different.

Let’s compare the Vet and the Millennial first. Millennials don’t want to be managed, whereas Vets like a distinct set of rules. A Vet enjoys ticking boxes, being process driven and knowing they’re doing what’s required. She enjoys a traditional, seniority based one-on-one management model where you as the team leader deliver formal instructions on how to improve performance. For a millennial, there’s nothing worse than being told what to do—they want to be led, not managed. They crave coaching and mentoring more than any generation we’ve seen to date and expect you to help in that way to navigate situations.

For the Baby Boomer and the GenX, well, it’s a different scenario again.  The Boomer wants collegiality with peer-to-peer participation to problem-solve situations—so team nursing can be a dream for them. On the other hand, the GenX wants to take this opportunity to demonstrate expertise.  GenX are not so aligned with the “team” ethos – they want to set their own limits, manage their own time and be entirely autonomous.

A savvy nurse manager could look at redistributing roles to leverage the strengths of each generation. Veterans tend to love paperwork (all those boxes to tick!) whereas millennials, predictably, hate it and see it as grunt work. But for a sixty year old veteran, the grunt work is rolling up their sleeves and getting into heavy nursing care. It would be a terrible waste to lose them, with all their incredible knowledge and experience, just because they’re no longer up for the average 900 steps per hour nurses do anymore!

So if a vet wants to do the paperwork, why not let her? If millennials want to be out there, at the coal face, challenging assumptions, synthesizing new approaches and concepts, why not let them? Nurse managers can be incredibly rigid about the way tasks are delegated. But if you assign work according to what each person values most, you’ll be creating a place where people love what they do.

You’ll attract great staff, build a team that trusts each other, and ultimately provide a better experience for patients. That’s how you create something truly special – but for all your generations.

Nicole’s career coaching blog and other information  can be found at

The thoughts of this blog are of the individual writer and not necessarily those of the Nursing CPD Institute.. To read our full disclaimer click here >>

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