Professionalism in Nursing: What Does It Really Mean?

By Val Gokenbach on Fri, Dec 27, 2013

nursing professionalIn order to understand the concept of professionalism in nursing, we first need to define the word profession. Webster describes profession as a “chosen, paid occupation requiring prolonged training and formal qualification.”

Professionals, therefore can be defined as individuals expected to display competent and skillful behaviors in alignment with their profession. Being professional then is the act of behaving in a manner defined and expected by the chosen profession.

This framework for professionalism in nursing began with our early roots with Florence Nightingale who set the bar rather high in regards to giving herself to others and her expectation of excellence in nursing practice. She was an inventor, a visionary, a missionary and she delivered all with a commitment to passion and love.

We, as nurses, are no different. We bear the tremendous responsibility of upholding the values of our profession. Our core nursing values define the driving force that dictates our beliefs and our behaviors.

Nursing as a profession embodies many values inherent in those who pursue nursing careers. When nurses are asked to identify their core values, they are surprisingly consistent throughout the profession globally. They include honesty, responsibility, pursuit of new knowledge, belief in human dignity, equality of all patients and the desire to prevent and alleviate suffering. In other words, all of us as nurses have chosen this profession to help others in need and to improve the quality of life for all. That mantra has not changed since the days of Florence Nightingale.

So how does this transfer to the expectations of your practice wherever you interface with patients? Your professionalism will be judged in your personal behaviors and how you present yourself to all those around you, and through those behaviors, you tell the world who you are. Components of your professionalism include your attitude, your appearance and your willingness to help others. Let’s explore these a bit.


Attitude in nursing is everything! The way you view your world and portray that view to others is everything. I am sure that you all can identify someone in your work environment with a terrible attitude that does their best to make the rest of the staff miserable.

Unfortunately, many times they are successful pulling everyone into the puddle with them. People behave like this because they are looking for attention and by sucking everyone else into their drama they get that attention and control the environment. This type of behavior is counter to the expectations of the nursing profession to focus on helping others rather than focusing on our own problems.

Personal issues need to be left at home and not taken into the work area. There are always going to be times when we face issues in our lives that threaten our positive outlook. I find it helpful to be grateful for everything I have. I believe that waking up in the morning is the best thing that can happen to me and the rest of the day becomes a gift.

I had the opportunity to meet a wonderful lady who lost her daughter to cancer recently. A tremendous lesson for her was to be grateful for every minute she had with her daughter and to convert the “have to’s” to the “get to’s.” When her daughter was depressed that she had to go for more chemotherapy, she reframed that to the fact that she “got to” go for more chemotherapy, which kept her alive for much longer.

If we begin to be grateful for what we have, our whole outlook on life changes and the way we relate to people becomes more meaningful. Be grateful because you “get to” be a nurse, you get to pick up your kids from sports, you get to go grocery shopping, you get to wake up in the morning - the list goes on and on.


There is no way around the fact that people judge you by your personal appearance. Clean scrubs, neat hair, clean shoes and a well groomed look makes the statement that you care about yourself as a person and therefore have the capacity to care about others.

People that look sloppy may be perceived by others as unorganized, lazy, and uncaring. If you do not care about yourself, how can you truly care for others? A little attention to how you look goes a long way to display your professionalism.

Willingness to Help Others

What has amazed me in my nursing career for over 35 years is the observation that nurses do not necessarily support each other as we should. There needs to be solidarity in our profession, and yet, what I have observed, is a more individualized approach where we, as nurses, are more worried about ourselves than the whole of the profession. This translates into your willingness to help others and to work together as a team, as well as speak positively about your profession whenever you can.

Remember, your profession is different than your nursing job. At times we, as nurses, may tend to talk negatively about the nursing profession because we do not like where we work, and that you have control over. There is no question that nursing is a tough profession, both physically and mentally, and that with changes in the economy and the pressures of health care reform, the work environment will become even more challenging.

To survive and actually thrive in nursing, we will all need to pull together as a profession and begin by working together at the bedside and being great team players willing to support each other. Something magical happens when we give to others; wonderful things begin to come back to us in far greater ways than what we have originally given.

My parting message to you all is that nurses are the most trusted profession in the world, have so much to give. Show the world how wonderful we are by always putting your best foot forward not only for yourself, but for all of us in this wonderful profession! You go nurse!


olawanleturton 1 month ago
This is an awesome article, I got it at the right time for my staff in my unit.
It is great!!!

Jane Buxton 1 year ago
I found this article to be easy reading and to the point. I agree with the person who commented about sharing religion and how it should not be taboo and yes, while we have the freedom and if deemed appropriate, then why not give some comfort to our patients, if only sharing that there is a God who loves them or even saying a prayer for them. We are not in a country where we will suffer for speaking up......yet !!!! and as for the comment about nurses only in the job in order to get married to doctors.........well, think again !!!! All that training just to possibly marry a doctor....I dont think so, do you ???? Jane

Anonymous 3 years ago
I found this article to be comprehensive. However,
there is a reference to discussing religion as unprofessional. In this
great country that we live in we have
the freedom to talk about anything. If we can share how the weather is or how our weekend was, then why can't we share how good God is. To place religion as taboo in the workplace would work well in Russia or other countries. But not here. Not yet at least. Spirituality is a positive , compassionate and professional driving force in many nurses and to imply a gag order is inappropriate. Please let us refrain from censure while the flag is still flying and while men and women are still willing to die to keep us free.

Anonymous 3 years ago
It is very well written. However, there are many nurses who chose nursing, not because they are passionate about nursing, but, so that they could find some doctors to get married to. And some nurses see nursing just as any other job.

Anonymous 3 years ago
this article was of great help to me it covers the main points of professionalism.

Anonymous 4 years ago
Respect for the individual, patient, co workers, family is a big part of being professional. Of course ATTITUDE counts a lot, when dealing with patients, co workers and family....PATIENCE also plays an important role in professionalism.
I just feel bad that all these seems to fade away little by little, HUMBLING yourself as an RN is a plus factor too....Nurses are professionals if they know their patients well(meaning by heart) and what they are suppose to do (plan of care) so no one can just threatened them neither management or doctors.

Anonymous 4 years ago
I really enjoyed this article and it really gives a voice to me as to what I believe about nsg as a profession. I've always tried to be professional as well as caring when I work, but what I 've found is that patients are so aware of how difficult a nurse's work really can be that they sometimes will not call for things they might need. I've said it to all my patients that I'm grateful to have a job and if there were no sick people to care for then I'd be out of work. With that said, "I'm here for you, caring for you." This always brings a smile to all my patients' faces.

Anonymous 4 years ago
I believe that Nurses see ourselves as professionals. We care, we treat all our patients the same (no VIP crap). We are professionals , we are not however treated as professionals by hospital management or some physicians. We are intrusted with all care and expectations and blamed when the system fails the patient and fails us. We are not the problem. We keep patients alive and hosptials thriving.