When I was a new graduate nurse, the first team I was assigned to was dysfunctional. Although we were kind to our patients, that didn’t carry over to our interactions with each other: some nurses made snide remarks and spread unfounded gossip, creating a toxic work environment. The tipping point came when the organization decided to change the oncology unit. The work environment didn’t promote innovation or encourage the staff to collaborate so the unit couldn’t handle the changes and eventually closed.

A Culture of Kindness

In contrast, I now work for an organization that promotes a culture of kindness, teaching—and expecting—staff to have compassion for both patients and colleagues. My institution encourages and supports ideas and innovation. We have a “proceed until apprehended” approach that’s built on the mutual trust that when clinicians always seek to do the right thing, they can’t do wrong.

And it works. We’ve retained more than 90% of staff. I’ve seen kindness in action and witnessed the power it has to direct us during 2020’s upheaval. We’ve experienced numerous hurtles and adverse events, but because the culture is secure, the organization remains strong.

Kindness promotes a culture of trust and transparency. Once an organization establishes these cornerstones, collaboration and connection naturally follow. A kind approach appeals to the better angels of our nature, to the best instincts of the human spirit as a better way to navigate through whatever storm we face.

Kind Versus Nice

Keep in mind, I didn’t propose to be nice. There’s a difference. Nice doesn’t rock the boat; it goes along with the current. Nice tells you that you look good in that outfit, even if you don’t.

Kind has ethical significance. It allows two-way conversation and extinguishes caustic responses. Kind allows for a measured discourse. You can be kind and maintain your political views or voice your concerns. You can be kind and advocate for your needs or listen to the needs of others.

Workplace Culture Matters

I’ve heard others say we don’t have time to worry about workplace culture, with the polarizing political landscape and the pandemic demanding our full attention. I disagree. A leadership that thinks we don’t have enough time or a good enough reason to invest in promoting a positive culture is short sighted.

Now, more than ever, we can see how culture influences policy and strategy. You can have policies and processes to care for patients during a pandemic, but if your workplace culture doesn’t promote innovative thinking and joint discussions with all stakeholders, how well can those guidelines be implemented? If you’re struggling personally or professionally but your organization offers no support systems, how can you expect to withstand chronic crises like the pandemic? What if your views differ from that of your teammates? How can you address those differences kindly and professionally if your culture isn’t structured to promote that?

How to Make a Difference

Employers must extend basic kindness and ask what their staff needs—and then collaborate with them to make it happen. Staff members in need or on a team that is suffering must extend kindness to themselves and their team and ask leadership for help. Keep doing so—while remaining kind—until you are heard and your needs are met.

To effectively ask for and receive help:

  • Be concise and specific.
  • Don’t apologize.
  • Make it personal, not transactional.
  • Follow up with results.

If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be the advocate you need, seek out someone who can champion your cause. Let people extend their kindness to you.

As oncology nurses, we have a lot of demands placed on us, but extending kindness is a big part of our job. And we also deserve it from our organizations, medical teams, and fellow nurses. It’s such a small request, but without a supportive foundation, we face more upheaval, burnout, workplace bullying, and the potential exodus of professional nurses from the bedside. Appealing to the better angels of our nature by adopting a systems-wide expectation of kindness in all interactions is the first step in charting the course for the future of the nursing profession.