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Keywords:

  • nurses;
  • staff stability;
  • grade mix;
  • ward organizational practice;
  • work environment;
  • acute hospital wards;
  • standards of practice

This paper explores relationships between grade mix, staff stability, care organization and nursing practice. The data were collected in the mid-1990s from a nationally representative sample of 100 acute hospital wards and 825 nurses. Analyses provides important insights for managers seeking to achieve the strategic aims set out in consecutive National Health Service (NHS) human resource management policies.

Hypotheses about ward clinical grade mix were not well supported. Where there was rich grade mix, nurses reported better collaborative working with other disciplines and greater influence. However, it was expected that wards practising ‘devolved’ nursing would have a richer grade mix and that the latter would lead to more innovative practice and nurses experiencing greater job satisfaction.

No evidence to support any of these hypotheses was found although the opposite scenario – a link between poor grade mix, unprogressive practice and perceived lower standards of care – was supported. Wards practising the ‘devolved’ system rely on adequate numbers of nurses rather than a rich grade mix, and do not necessarily provide a more stable, retentive work environment for nurses.

By contrast, findings about staff stability were largely as expected. A strong link between staff stability and standards of professional nursing practice was found, indicating that staff stability is more important than a rich grade mix for achieving innovative, research-based practice. However, staff instability undermined cohesion with nurse colleagues, collaborative working with doctors, and nurses' ability to cope with the workload.

Overall, both the papers demonstrate that staffing resources and prevailing ethos of care are more important predictors of care processes and job satisfaction than organizational systems. They identify the detrimental effects on nurses and their work of having few staff and a weak grade mix, and the importance of staff stability. Higher standards of nursing practice are achieved where stability is high, independently of staffing characteristics.