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Not going it alone

Structured support systems will assist nurses to pursue further study, writes Annie May.

Fostering further study among nurse employees is an important recruitment and retention strategy for hospitals. However, the support to do this isn’t always there, according to new research.

The study, which looked at employer-based support for registered nurses undertaking postgraduate study via distance education, found there was a large gap in what was offered and what the nurses believe is required.

All too often employers talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk, says author of the study Kirsten Black.

“There will always be the exceptions, but overall there is much more that can be done to assist nurses in further study, particularly when it comes to distance education,” she says.

Black questioned 92 registered nurses, 26 of who were currently enrolled in further study by distance education (DE) and 50 who were planning future study. For 16 of the group currently studying by DE, no support was received, while a further 19 per cent received only one type of support.

Of these same nurses, more than half had sought support. This is despite 88 per cent studying by DE saying the qualification is relevant to their job.

The difference between what support was sought and what was offered was also highlighted. Types of support include course fees, study leave, resources made available, mentorship, roster requests and clinical placements.

The majority of nurses in the study believe some supports should be mandatory, with study leave seen as the most important. Roster requests, clinical placements and preceptorship also was seen by a large number of needing to be mandated.

While having the course fees paid may be perceived as the most important, Black says it isn’t only about money. This was also reflected in the study, with nurses seeing it as liked but not necessarily being needed compared to other supports.

“There are a number of simple and practical measures that employers can do to support nurses studying by DE that won’t cost them any money,” she says.

“Today there is a lot of work, time and focus pt into mentoring undergraduate students. We should be doing the same for our colleagues.”

A workplace culture can, however, be cultivated in which further study and care of colleagues are highly valued, says Black. Such a culture would in effect provide an employer mandate for less formal modes of support such as these for nurses undertaking further study.

Distance education can be very isolating, says Black whose own experience with distance education has been largely positive.

“I have been very lucky to receive financial support, but it is easy to feel alone. Now, when I know someone who is doing DE I take the time to see if I can be any help,”
she says.

If employers develop formal frameworks within their systems to identify and support nurses who are studying through DE, the learning outcomes can be enhanced.

“Hospitals are big places, so one nurse working in one area might not know that a nurse in another area has done the same course as them earlier. If this information is made available it will go a long way to reducing the isolation.”

A system of support must start at the level of organisational culture and look at cost–benefits associated with increased staff expertise, satisfaction and retention, says Black.

“Putting a lit bit of money and some thought and time into supporting study leads to retention.

“Nurses get dissatisfied and they leave. This has been proven by the research. In order to keep them they need to make it a better place to work. Encouraging increasing skills through further study does this.”

It will also help in recruitment.

“The employers that are the most competitive in attracting new staff are those that recognise the importance of supporting their staff. If a nurse has the choice between two employers and one offered a mentor program and flexible rostering for those studying while the other made no offer of support, the choice is clear.”

The findings of this study warrant further research, she says. For instance, whether workplace support has a direct effect on the uptake and completion of study by nurses, either by DE or face-to-face course delivery and how workplace support impacts on nurses’ stress levels when they study.

“Rural and remote nursing employees may be at a disadvantage in terms of access to face-to-face further education. This aspect warrants further research to determine the impact of workplace on the provision of workplace support for RNs studying by DE,” she says.

“This study may encourage employers to introduce structured support systems that will actively assist nurses to pursue further study.

“If the employer is motivated to do it, and want to be credible advocates of further education, there are simple measures they can be taking.”

The study will be published in Nurse Education Today.

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