Get access

Analysis of the moral habitability of the nursing work environment


  • Elizabeth H. Peter PhD RN,

  • Amy V. Macfarlane BScN RN,

  • Linda L. O'Brien-Pallas PhD RN

Elizabeth Peter,
Faculty of Nursing,
University of Toronto,
50 St George Street,
Ontario M5S 3H4,


Background.  Following health reform, nurses have experienced the tremendous stress of heavy workloads, long hours and difficult professional responsibilities. In recognition of these problems, a study was conducted that examined the impact of the working environment on the health of nurses. After conducting focus groups across Canada with nurses and others well acquainted with nursing issues, it became clear that the difficult work environments described had significant ethical implications.

Aim.  The aim of this paper is to report the findings of research that examined the moral habitability of the nursing working environment.

Methods.  A secondary analysis was conducted using the theoretical work of Margaret Urban Walker. Moral practices and responsibilities from Walker's perspective cannot be extricated from other social roles, practices and divisions of labour. Moral-social orders, such as work environments in this research, must be made transparent to examine their moral habitability. Morally habitable environments are those in which differently situated people experience their responsibilities as intelligible and coherent. They also foster recognition, cooperation and shared benefits.

Findings.  Four overarching categories were developed through the analysis of the data: (1) oppressive work environments; (2) incoherent moral understandings; (3) moral suffering and (4) moral influence and resistance. The findings clearly indicate that participants perceived the work environment to be morally uninhabitable. The social and spatial positioning of nurses left them vulnerable to being overburdened by and unsure of their responsibilities. Nevertheless, nurses found meaningful ways to resist and to influence the moral environment.

Conclusions.  We recommend that nurses develop strong moral identities, make visible the inseparability of their proximity to patients and moral accountability, and further identify what forms of collective action are most effective in improving the moral habitability of their work environments.