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Women in healthcare want to find a healthy work-life balance

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Only 9% of women who work in the healthcare industry are very satisfied with their work-life balance, according to a study published in 2008 by the Studer Group. On average, "women said one time per week that they have to make a decision where they feel they are deciding between their family and their job," says Quint Studer, founder and CEO of the Gulf Breeze, FL, organization. "That is a sobering statistic."

Consider that more than 80% of the people who work in healthcare are female—roughly 10.7 million women. The percentage of female applicants at medical schools has increased from 32.7% in 1982 to 1983 to 49% in 2007 to 2008, and nursing has historically been a female-dominated profession. "It is time to better understand the unique and delicate issues of professional-personal blend facing the women who work in healthcare," says Studer.

Nearly 8,000 women took the survey, including nurses (23%), administrators (22%), physicians (2%), and other healthcare professionals such as therapists and lab personnel (53%). Studer says the top three factors that affected work-life balance were:

  1. A supervisor who is supportive
  2. Professional development
  3. Concierge services

Forty-six percent of the women surveyed reported that they tend to their own needs only a few times per year. Healthcare is a nonstop 24-hour industry that holds people's lives in balance. While workers in many sectors of the economy can leave their desks if an emergency arises, such as a sick or injured child, for instance, the same cannot be said for an ICU nurse who knows there aren't enough critical care nurses to cover her patients if she leaves.

"At the end of the day we need to look at our lives and our priorities," says Grissel Hernandez, MPH, BSN, RN, HN-BC, director of clinical education at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, NJ. "Work is just one aspect. We have to have a social life. We need to have interests—books we like to read, music we like to listen to, and movies we like to watch. And sometimes we forget that because we are so driven as nurses."

Nevertheless, nurse managers must find ways to improve staffs' work-life balance—not just because it can reduce turnover rates and improve employee satisfaction, but because it can improve patient care. A study by VHA's Consulting Services shows that in healthcare organizations with turnover rates exceeding 22%, the severity-adjusted average length of stay was 1.2 days longer than those organizations with lower turnover rates (less than 12%).

Of course, improving the work-life balance for female nurses may puzzle male nurse managers more so than it would female managers. But regardless of your gender, the solution doesn't have to be complex. Here are five female-proof steps managers can take right now to improve the work-life balance of staff:

  1. Listen up. Women don't want to be told what to do. They want to be asked for input, says Studer. For example, rather than telling your women workers how you are responding to a challenge, consider saying, "Here is what is happening. What do you think?" Then really listen to staffs' response.
  2. Connect on a personal level. "Healthcare is still dominated by male C-suites that have created workplace cultures that are comfortable to them," says Studer. This may mean keeping personal and professional relationships separate. The problem is that many women want to work for someone who cares about them on a personal level. Studer believes hospital leaders need to create a culture that is best for everyone in the organization, not necessarily the environment that is most comfortable for them.
  3. Check that systems and tools work. No one wants to come to work every day only to encounter inefficient and ineffective processes. It's frustrating to have to work longer hours because systems aren't operating correctly. Take the time to ensure your employees are not wasting their time working around problems. Ask for staff feedback about practices in place at your facility regularly, and how they feel they could be more improved. In this economic climate, it is of upmost importance that time and resources are not wasted.
  4. Think like an elastic. It's hard for healthcare organizations to offer flexible scheduling options if they have staff shortages or high turnover rates. But flexibility is an important component to attracting future healthcare workers and retaining the staff members that you already have, Studer says. For example, if one of your nurses suddenly has to cut back hours because her babysitter can't stay as late to watch her children, be understanding and make this period as seamless as possible. It is likely that nurse will eventually return to work full-time.
  5. Start with yourself. In order for staff of any gender to maintain a healthy work-life balance, Hernandez says managers must first role model those healthy behaviors. "On what leg can I possibly stand and tell staff not to skip meals, or not to eat in front of the computer when I am doing it? How can I tell them to leave work on time when I am sending e-mails to them at 9 o'clock at night?" Listen to your body throughout the day, she advises. Take a bathroom break when necessary, and eat when you are hungry. "It is impossible for any of us to move forward with any kind of agenda if we ourselves are not committed to the process," says Hernandez.

Editor's note: This article was adapted from "What Women Want—But Rarely Get" which was originally featured on