Nurses Lead The Way On Sustainability Efforts

Gundersen Health System supports a cutting-edge program for engaging nurses in sustainability and climate leadership.

“Sustainability is deeply individual. We have to encourage people to dig deep and find how sustainability matters to them. That’s what enables lasting change and success.” — Phoebe Breed, Surgical & Digestive Care Unit Nurse, Gundersen Health

When we think of sustainability leaders, we often think about C-suite executives. While it’s true that top-down approaches to engaged leadership can create lasting, robust sustainability programs, this is only one side of the equation. Embedding sustainability into the culture of the organization drives lasting impact. Integrating grassroots, bottom-up approaches to sustainability leadership programs foster a culture of sustainability that enables everyone in a health care organization to be engaged.

As health care organizations work to reduce the impact of climate change, a culture that fosters sustainability and climate leadership must be encouraged in day-to-day operations. Everyone from hospital maintenance to CEOs have a role to play in supporting these initiatives. Nurses are playing an especially important leadership role in addressing environmental sustainability and climate change.

Because of the important leadership role nurses have in addressing climate and health issues, Health Care Without Harm conducted a competition for nurses to develop and design programs to address climate change. One of the goals of the competition was to help empower nurses and support their climate leadership. Two proposals were selected as winners and each was awarded a $10,000 grant to assist with implementation.

One of the winning proposals was submitted by Gundersen Health’s Deb Rislow, RN and Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, and Phoebe Breed, Surgical and Digestive Care Unit Nurse.

Their proposal created a program to educate all 1,600 Gundersen nurses on how to take the sustainability practices that they have integrated into their daily work life into their communities and homes.

Gundersen leadership receiving Practice Greenhealth Environmental Excellence Awards. Phobe Breed second from right.

Phoebe Breed played a key role in leading and implementing the initiative at Gundersen. “People always ask me ‘how do you get your leaders engaged?’ But I was blessed to come into this already having the CEO and senior VPs on board. For us, the greater challenge was getting the everyday, boots on the ground worker bees engaged.”

The question we started asking was, ‘what are the things that they’re doing every day that they don’t even realize is contributing to sustainability?’ Breed stated.

The Gundersen nursing leadership program educates nurses and increases nursing environmental engagement, both at work and at home. The program’s greatest success lies in its ability to streamline educational efforts within preexisting frameworks and “culture fits”, which allows for a wide audience base and an efficient integration of sustainability work into day-to-day operations.

Nurturing A Culture Of Sustainability

In order to maximize engagement, this education program was embedded within the framework professional care already in place at Gundersen. Educational materials on sustainability practices were presented through the lens of Gundersen’s nursing professional framework and Dr. Jean Watson’s Caritas processes.

Breed stated that “using the preexisting framework as the foundation for this program really resonated with our staff because it was something that was already familiar to them.” Additionally, educational materials were circulated via established communication tools, like online education modules, Gundersen’s Envision blog, and articles in the health system weekly newspaper. “We identified and implemented resources that already worked with our culture as a communication framework,” Breed stated.

Championing Employee Engagement

Peer-to-peer support was a fundamental aspect to educating nurses. The program provided for the implementation of sustainability nurse “champions” in each nursing department, which was reinforced by support from administrative leadership. These champions were mostly nurses, and the nursing standpoint was heavily emphasized, but Breed stated that “it was encouraging and exciting to see an interprofessional representation among the champions.”

Nursing champions facilitated education and encouragement within their respective departments, even organizing inter-departmental “competitions” to see which unit could recycle the most, or be the most diligent with waste segregation.

Breed stated that “nurses are healers, so it makes sense to look at how we heal patients and extend that to how we can play a role in healing the environment.” Sometimes, though, environmental stewardship can feel overwhelming. Making use of fun competitions and benchmarking successes on a regular basis are important to keeping the momentum going.

“As nurses, we like to fix things. That’s why we become nurses. We assess, diagnose, intervene, reassess. We’re instant gratification people. But fixing the environment is different. You have to have passion to keep you going when you don’t see immediate results,” Breed stated.

Everyone Has A Role To Play

Reflecting on her experience leading this initiative, Breed stated that “the fundamental consideration is how to empower and acknowledge work that’s already happening, and use that empowerment to encourage people to embed that work into their daily lives. We already had a culture of sustainability, but this allowed them to take what they do at work back home and into their communities.”

While Gundersen’s robust culture of sustainability and strong support from key leadership have empowered Breed to lead this education program, she offered advice to those health care organizations who don’t yet have a culture of sustainability, but wish to build it from the ground up.

“Find your key stakeholders, learn their values, and connect those values to sustainability. This way, you’re rooting your proposal in an already-existing drive and mission, and that becomes your entry point for developing a culture. At Gundersen, we have a mission of caring and healing. We took what we already value — caring for our patients — and connected it to caring for the planet.”

Learn more about Health Care Without Harm’s Climate and Health Program.