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A comparative analysis of contemporary nurses’ discontents


  • Sue Forsyth MA PhD RN,

  • Heather McKenzie BA PhD RN

Sue Forsyth,
Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery,
University of Sydney,
88 Mallett Street,
Camperdown 2050,


Aim.  This paper reports a study to evaluate and increase understanding of contemporary Registered Nurses’ discontents, and to compare these discontents and their effects with those of nurses 20 years ago.

Background.  In 1986, Turner argued that nurses’ discontents were reflected in a discourse or ‘vocabulary of complaint’ that provided a sense of solidarity amongst practising nurses, and defused their frustrations rather than channelling them into demands for workplace reform. In this paper, we revisit Turner's notion of a vocabulary of complaint in the context of a study of nurse retention in the contemporary Australian healthcare workplace.

Methods.  This paper draws on the qualitative data from a larger project (completed in 2001) exploring the relationship between job satisfaction and self-concept in both recently graduated and experienced nurses. Here, we elaborate on thematic analyses of the comments of 146 Australian Registered Nurses with more than 5 years’ nursing experience.

Findings.  There is still a high level of discontent amongst contemporary practising nurses, although the focus of their complaints and their responses to them have changed since Turner's study. Conflicting expectations of nurses and managers and lack of opportunity to provide comprehensive care emerged as the most important issues for experienced nurses today. Rather than contributing to a sense of solidarity as in Turner's study, contemporary nurses’ discontents reflect intense personal frustration and underpin individual nurses’ decisions to leave, or plan to leave, the workforce.

Conclusion.  There is an urgent need for increasing health service management and community awareness about the relationship between providing comprehensive nursing care and nurses’ job satisfaction. Addressing nurses’ discontents, wider nursing involvement in the international policy arena, and the politicization of nurses worldwide may contribute to alleviating the current global nursing shortage.