Even though it happened a decade ago, School of Nursing professor Julie Haizlip, MD, recalls the moment like it was yesterday. As she arrived for her shift in the pediatric ICU, a colleague spotted her and exhaled an audible sigh of relief.
“Oh, wow,” the charge nurse breathed to Haizlip. “I’m so glad it’s you that’s here tonight.”
Those eight words were like magic. They authentically affirmed Haizlip’s competence. They celebrated her value as part of the healthcare team. They connoted her worth and belonging. They—and the nurse who uttered them—made Haizlip feel she mattered.
“Even though we might appreciate free t-shirts or all-hospital luncheons, those aren’t the things that promote mattering,” Haizlip explained. “Mattering is often found in small, intimate gestures, the spaces in between tasks in your day.”
Mattering (n): Having the opportunity to both add value and feel valued.-
But their size belies their strength, Haizlip added. “When someone makes you feel like you truly matter, it strengthens you at your very core.”
Mattering—defined as one’s ability to add value and feel valued, and a topic that’s increasingly being written about in both the academic and lay press—is often acknowledged by forward-thinking organizations as a key driver of success. In healthcare, as pandemic-driven attrition and exhaustion weaken and erode the workforce, mattering’s centrality is a clear part of fortifying clinician populations—though how to sow its seeds is still coming into focus.
That’s where Haizlip’s work comes in. In her first study, done in collaboration with Darden professor Morela Hernandez, DNP program director and associate professor Beth Quatrara, and post-doc Courtney McCluney, she polled more than 300 nurses about job engagement, burnout, and the sense of meaning they got from work. Not surprisingly, nurses who perceived that they added value and were appreciated in their jobs were less likely to report burnout, and, the group extrapolated, more likely to stay at their jobs longer. Nurses who reported that “they couldn’t recall the last time [they] mattered” experienced more burnout, and, the team surmised, might be more at risk of quitting.
[VIDEO] The Difference Mattering Makes
That 2020 study, published in the Journal of Nursing Administration, also identified the primacy of workplace relationships (more important than meaning derived from patient interactions) as powerful drivers of mattering. Collaboration, trust, and collegiality among interdisciplinary colleagues helped mattering rule the day.
Now, with two Kern Institute grants in hand, Haizlip’s focus has shifted upstream, to nursing and medical students’ experiences. She and research professor Natalie May are working to identify mattering’s indicators by looking at how student-identified faculty exemplars brew that same magical sense of mattering so that it might be intentionally cultivated in the preamble to one’s career—and expected in the professional settings beyond college and graduate study.
Through painstaking interviews with both faculty and students, they’ve found, unsurprisingly, that mattering most often exists through gestures of care: a text message check-in from a professor or staff member. Attendance at a well-being event with food and therapy dogs. Access to a food pantry and grocery store gift cards. An enveloping hug in the hallway. A compliment or an affirmation on a hard day.
“All these things acknowledge that our students are complicated human beings with needs,” Haizlip explained. “Yes, they’re students, but they’re also people with families, spouses, children, illnesses, mortgages."
Creating a sense of belonging, affirming their value and inclusion, added May, “can make the difference between a nursing or medical student dropping out or staying the course.”
Haizlip and May are developing a “mattering toolkit” so that all healthcare leaders—from the classroom to the C-suite to the hospital unit—can take meaningful action to ensure healthier environments that nurture and affirm so that student-clinicians and practicing clinicians are primed to deliver high quality patient care, enjoy professional longevity, and be part of an organization’s strength and excellence.
A focus on mattering also opens the door for creative ways to build into day-to-day workflow shows of appreciation and belonging. If a Daisy Award recognizes patient-centered care, said Haizlip, how might one colleague affirm another for excellence in collaboration? How might a teacher create classroom belonging?
“Everything is about creating human connection,” May said, “and that’s the number one ingredient in mattering. We can solve all our problems. We just need to ask the right questions.”
From the winter 2023 digital VNL magazine.
8 Tips to Bolster Mattering
- check in with others: a text, an email, a written note, a conversation, and really listen to their answer
- ask a curious question of someone
- attend meetings and events in person: it feeds and reinforces everyone present
- write a note or a text to acknowledge others
- take the time to learn something personal about someone
- nominate someone for an award or recognize them publicly for something specific
- know students’ and colleagues’ names; take the time to pronounce them correctly
- take the time to read someone’s cover letter or CV carefully, and beforehand, if you’re interviewing them