How to Demonstrate and Develop Professionalism in Nursing

Professional woman smiling while outdoors
Written by Marie Hasty, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A group of healthcare workers demonstrate professionalism in nursing.

Just a few decades ago, some scholars questioned whether nursing was a real profession. Today, nurses are the most trusted professional group. What caused this shift? Developing professionalism in nursing has helped nurses gain status, earn better wages, and be seen as more than pillow-puffers and doctor-helpers.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the concept of nursing professionalism began to develop and nursing started to be perceived as a real career. Educational standards, shifting perceptions of women, and certifications have helped grow nursing into the professional field it is today; characterized by advanced education, continuous professional development, and evidence-based practice.

“Professionalism” is a buzzword in nursing schools because the field has fought for its status as a leading health profession. But what does professionalism mean in the context of nursing practice? And how can you develop and demonstrate professionalism in your nursing career?

What Is Professionalism in Nursing?

Being a professional is more than showing up to work on time — it includes emotional intelligence, engaging in social justice, using ethical and moral judgment, and being assertive. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), professionalism means embracing these values:

  • Integrity
  • Altruism
  • Inclusivity
  • Compassion
  • Courage
  • Humility
  • Advocacy
  • Caring
  • Autonomy
  • Humanity

These are all valuable qualities to embody, but how are they reflected in nursing? To quote the Iranian Journal of Nursing, “Professional identity is a secret knowledge that shows the continuation of a profession.” But where does this secret knowledge reveal itself? There are three major categories of professionalism in nursing:

  • Professional: Nurses show lifelong learning, participate in evidence-based practice, demonstrate innovation, strive for excellence, and possess systematic nursing knowledge.
  • Caring: Nurses create a caring environment, give support, embrace the unknowns and miracles in life, and show kindness, concern, and empathy.
  • Altruistic: Nurses are patient-centered, dedicated, show public service, and are willing to care for the community and others.

Developing Professionalism in Your Nursing Career

Professionalism might look different at every stage of your professional life as a nurse. Here’s how to develop professionalism as a nurse, from school to practice to seeking new work opportunities.

Professionalism in Nursing School

As a student nurse, you begin to develop your identity as a professional. Nursing schools tend to enforce serious conduct as students learn the skills and mindset of bedside nursing. You wear a uniform, you have to show up to class on time, and there’s little margin for error in exams. The rigors of nursing school help condition students to be a part of this scientific field (though nursing isn’t yet considered a STEM major).

Nursing school builds the foundation of nursing professional practice. Your experiences in simulations, clinicals, classes, and exams help form you into a nurse. But even before sitting for the NCLEX, you can further develop nursing professionalism by:

  • Getting involved in organizations like the National Student Nurses’ Organization (NSNA) and the American Nurses Association (ANA). These are great spaces to connect with other nurses and students, learn about career assistance, and build community in your early career.
  • Mentorship programs can help you learn from and teach others. Nursing school is hard, but supporting one another can make it easier. Many nursing schools have mentorship programs for newer students to learn from more experienced ones.
  • Debriefing sessions with your professors or peers will help you gain perspective on what you experienced in clinicals. These are great spaces for discussions on ethics, care plans, and challenges with patients. Be sure to ask questions and get feedback on your skills.

Professionalism in Nursing Practice

Professionalism isn’t a static thing, but an evolving practice that grows with you. As a nurse, you’re constantly learning, implementing new evidence, and building your skillset as a clinician and caregiver. Practicing nurses can embody professionalism on every shift, with every patient, with peers, and with other members of the healthcare team.

Here are some examples of where nurses show professionalism:

  • Handoff: Communication is essential to the nursing profession, whether it’s with nurses, interdisciplinary teammates, or patients and their families. Standardized SBAR reports (situation, background, assessment, recommendation) help ensure complete handoffs that keep patients safe.
  • Emotional intelligence: Nurses are often part of some of the worst days of a patient’s life. It takes compassion and empathy when a patient is unpleasant, confused, or combative. Nurses show these skills by continuing to show up even when patient care is difficult. Emotional intelligence helps nurses give better care and is continuously evolving.
  • Evidence-based practice: Medicine shifts constantly as new research reveals better ways of caring for patients. Professional nurses use evidence to guide practice and shift their behaviors when necessary.
  • Self-advocacy: While some patient scenarios require compassion and emotional intelligence, others require nurses to advocate to keep themselves safe. Physical abuse is a risk in nursing. Professional nurses may have to advocate for themselves and their peers, for the good of themselves and the profession.
  • Self-care: Nurses have to take care of themselves in order to care for others. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and caring for your physical and mental health, are also essential elements in nursing professionalism. Taking time away from work, resting, and setting healthy work boundaries are all essential to being a great nurse.

How You Can Continue Developing Nursing Professionalism

Nurses exhibit professionalism every day, but there are additional ways that nurses can seek out professional development opportunities. Here are some examples of continuing development opportunities for nurses:

  • Certification: Continuing education is a core component of professional development, and getting certified in a specialty helps further develop your skills and knowledge. Certification shows your commitment to the field and can help improve job opportunities and salary.
  • Shared governance: Participating in hospital policy development and quality-improvement measures gives nurses more power in decision-making. Shared governance helps you engage in nurse leadership and develop your skills as a collaborator.
  • Professional organizations: There are organizations for every nursing specialty and skill set. Getting involved in an organization or association — like the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) or the academy of Medical-surgical Nurses (AMSN) — can help you grow your knowledge and stay updated on research within your specialty.
  • Committees: Leadership helps nursing evolve, and many units have committees that focus on specific themes and include various members of the nursing chain of command. Falls prevention, infection control, and patient safety committees can help you improve patient care while collaborating with your peers.
  • Conferences: Remote and in-person events are a great way to build your nurse community and create connections that influence your career. Check out nurse conferences in your region and professional organizations.
  • Education: Going back to school for your BSN, MSN, DNP, or PhD develops your professional career and grows the nursing field as a whole. Graduate-prepared nurses help lead the field in research, education, and advocacy, which are all essential components of professionalism.

Pursue Professionalism in Nursing On Your Own Terms

We recognize your work as a nursing professional and a human. Find out how IntelyCare can match you with nursing jobs that can further your development and provide you with a fulfilling career.