Safe Staffing at the Top of New ANA President’s Priority List

By Carol Davis

As Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, PhD, MBA, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, assumes the presidency of the American Nurses Association (ANA), her priorities will include safe staffing and continuing the momentum of her predecessor, Ernest J. Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN, to fight racism.

Mensik Kennedy brings more than 25 years of nursing experience to the ANA presidency and has given more than a decade of service to ANA as a committee treasurer and board of directors member. She also is a member of the Oregon Nurses Association.

Mensik Kennedy’s career has focused more on management and leadership than clinical work—a preference she realized during her undergraduate nursing program, she told American Nurse Journal, ANA’s official journal.

“When I was pursuing my MBA, a lot of my classmates weren’t nurses and hadn’t provided patient care but had ideas about fixing the healthcare system. This made me reflect on how I, as a nurse, was going to dig down into the values of nursing and move the profession and healthcare forward from a leadership and management perspective,” she told American Nurse Journal.

As she takes ANA’s reins, Mensik Kennedy spoke with HealthLeaders about plans for her two-year term.

This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

HealthLeaders: With all the challenges that nursing is experiencing right now, what is the one thing that most needs tending?

Jennifer Mensik Kennedy: There are a lot of challenges, but the most pressing challenge is safe staffing. This has been an issue well beyond COVID. COVID exacerbated it and shined a light on some of these issues, but this has been going on for some time. We need to focus on solving this one because it has a lot of impact on patient safety. This has an impact for nurses staying in the workforce. So, looking at safe staffing is of the highest, highest importance.

HL: The reasons nurses leave an organization are the same ones that have been around for decades: burnout, a stressful work environment, and inadequate staffing, as you just mentioned. How do you plan to address these stressors so that nursing can finally achieve healthy staffing levels?

Mensik Kennedy: We have a couple of things that we’re doing at the American Nurses Association. The ANA joins in leading part of the national nurse staffing thinking where we have brought together a diverse group of frontline leaders, nurse leaders, and other key stakeholders and have published a set of priorities and recommendations, which we’re going to continue.

But we’re really looking at what we can continue to do from a long-term perspective. That includes working with Congress and healthcare organizations to improve the work environment and to work to retain and attract nurses. We need to look at antiquated pay structures; we do know that hospitals might not have the money coming out of the pandemic, so we need to adjust the Medicare Wage Index.

We need to look at imposing restrictions on mandatory overtime. We also need to look at funding the national healthcare workforce commission, which was authorized under the Affordable Care Act. This was something that was passed years ago that Congress hasn’t funded. We could have had a decade of information under our belts nationally, to look at what’s going on, but that commission has yet to be funded.

We need to fund some of these things and take meaningful action together. This isn’t something that nurses can solve on their own, but we can partner with everyone to make these changes.

HL: Some 92% of Black respondents to a study last January by the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing personally experienced racism in the workplace from their leaders. Leaders generally set the tone in their organizations, so how do you and ANA plan to address this?

Mensik Kennedy: President Grant started this work with the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing, and I’m going to be fully involved in continuing this work and moving this into the operational phase of helping leaders learn about structural and systematic racism that might exist in the organization. It may be one thing for all of us to say, “Go take an educational module on implicit bias and understand that implicit bias exists,” but it’s another thing to be able to take those classes and then look at your own policies in an organization—how you hire—from a different perspective and then remove those barriers.

For instance, a hospital or an organization might require acute-care experience, but the individual did not have acute-care experience and that was a barrier for them coming to work in an organization. So, part of this is to look at the cultures and the diverse experiences of individuals when they hire into an organization.

From a management and leadership perspective, one of those key points is looking at what they might have always thought would be a good idea, but really is a barrier to the diverse workforce that we need to match our patients.

HL: Specializing is on the rise right now in nurse education, both in terms of specialties offered and the number of nurses specializing. What effect will that have on nursing in general?

Mensik Kennedy: I always tell everyone there is something for everyone in nursing. A lot of people tend to say, “I don’t want to be a nurse because I’m going to have to look at blood.” But because our technology and healthcare have advanced and we have all these new places and settings and modalities of treatment, nurses do need to be specialized in order to provide the care at those levels for different patients in all different settings.

It’s exciting because this is one of those areas where we can retain nurses. They have places to go when they want to do something different, and they don’t have to leave the profession because there’s so many ways they can contribute to improving the health of this country.

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.