One of the most complex nursing skills is that of delegation. It requires sophisticated clinical judgment and final accountability for patient care. Effective delegation is based on one’s state nurse practice act and an understanding of the concepts of responsibility, authority, and accountability. Work Complexity Assessment, a program that defines and quantifies various levels of care complexity based on the knowledge and skill required to perform the work, has demonstrated that methods of patient assignment and staff scheduling that support consistency increase what could be delegated to ancillary personnel by using the more effective assignment patterns. The author begins this article by discussing delegation and the related concepts of responsibility, accountability, and authority. Next factors to consider in the delegation process, namely nursing judgment, interpersonal relationships, and assignment patterns are presented. The author concludes by sharing how to develop delegation skills.
Key words: accountability, authority, delegation, delegation potential, pairing and partnering scenarios, patient assignments, professional practice, relationship management, responsibility, simulation, staff schedule, state nurse practice act, unit-based, Work Complexity Assessment
Registered Nurses (RNs) are brokers of patient care resources. RNs synthesize data collected by nurses and other healthcare professionals so as to coordinate the patient’s safe, individualized care and to best address patient and family needs in a way that maximizes available resources. RNs decide what patient care interventions are necessary and how, when, and by whom these interventions need to be provided. These decisions are made in a clinical environment in which shrinking resources and increased demands for services heighten the need for nurses to delegate care based on professional guidelines and their state nurse practice acts. The author begins this article by discussing delegation and the related concepts of responsibility, accountability, and authority. Next factors to consider in the delegation process, namely nursing judgment, interpersonal relationships, and assignment patterns are presented. The author concludes by sharing how delegation skills can be taught and strengthened.
Delegation and Related Concepts
Delegation is an important skill that influences clinical and financial outcomes...Perhaps one of the most difficult responsibilities an RN has is that of effective delegation. RNs are required to understand what patients and families need and then engage the appropriate care givers in the plan of care in order to achieve desired patient outcomes while maximizing the available resources on the patient’s behalf. Delegation is an important skill that influences clinical and financial outcomes; yet, an RN’s delegation skills often are not evaluated in the same manner as other clinical skills, even though a number of nurses continue to need help in delegating appropriately.
The following scenario is a typical situation that RNs frequently describe when sharing their need for more staff:
...the RN performed work that others could have completed.Near the end of her shift, the RN finds that the LPN and nursing assistant have all their work completed and are sitting in the nursing station waiting for the next shift to arrive. The RN has been running all evening trying to juggle competing patient needs, such as administering blood and initiating IV antibiotics for patients assigned to the LPN and nursing assistant, in addition to answering a pharmacist’s questions about a patient’s lab results and performing requests made by team members from other services, all while trying to complete the care needed for her patients. The RN is struck by how overwhelmed she feels and questions the LPN and nursing assistant about why they did not help her. The LPN and nursing assistant respond that had the RN asked them to help, they would have, adding, “but we can’t read your mind.” The RN responded, “I didn’t have time ask. Couldn’t you see I was busy?”
There is no doubt that this RN needed help. The RN’s challenge, however, was not related to a lack of available personnel. Rather the situation developed because the RN performed work that others could have completed. Almost all RNs can benefit from strengthening their delegation skills so as to maximize the available resources.
Delegation and Related Concepts
Delegation is a complex process in professional practice requiring sophisticated clinical judgment and final accountability for patients’ care (National Council of State Boards of Nursing [NCSBN], 2005). The variability and complexity of each patient situation requires RN assessment to determine what is appropriate for the LPN, nursing assistant, and/or other assistive personnel, or even another RN, to perform. In the delegation process, RNs need to match the skills of the staff with the needs of the patient and family. Matching staff skill to patient and family needs highlights the difference between delegation and assignment. The NCSBN defines delegation as “giving someone a task from the delegator’s practice” (NCSBN, 1995, p.1). This task, however, needs to be one that the person accepting the assignment is qualified to perform. Assignment is defined as “giving someone else a task within his/her own practice and is based on job descriptions and policies” (NCSBN, 1995, p.1). Clarifying the difference between delegation and assignment helps staff members understand why one cannot develop a simple laundry list of what can be delegated to others.
Perhaps one of the most difficult responsibilities an RN has is that of effective delegation. Delegation belongs to the practice of registered nurses, but often it is not well understood or practiced. Ebright, Patterson, Chalko, & Render (2003) have stated that innovations, such as work redesign, have contributed to increased complexity affecting how delegation occurs. Work redesign has relied heavily on assistive personnel, sometimes called nurse extenders; however, many tasks cannot be delegated to these assistants because they exceed the scope of practice of these personnel (Ebright, et al.)
In the scenario provided above, the RN was the person directing the work of others. However, the RN did not communicated with the LPN and nursing assistant about what needed to be done. In addition, the RN accepted the responsibility to perform additional activities requested by other departments rather than redirecting some of them. This behavior is not uncommon. A study of 170,000 healthcare workers found that RNs often performed inappropriate work or work that others could have done, thus contributing to a loss of the professional components of nursing (Murphy, Ruch, Pepicello, & Murphy, 1997).
Nurses are stewards of healthcare resources. They promote cost containment for healthcare organizations (NCSBN & American Nurses Association [ANA], 2006). Delegation is a skill that maximizes the available resources in the interest of patient care. Professional nurses need to work effectively with assistive personnel because of the escalating shortage of RNs, rising patient acuity, and increased therapy complexity (NCSBN & ANA). RNs are responsible for the care they provide and for determining what care can be appropriately delegated to others. LPNs and assistive personnel have technical expertise that can be maximized when RNs become skilled delegators who understand the concepts of responsibility, accountability, and authority, and grasp how these concepts influence what activities RNs can delegate to others (Forte, Forstrum, & Lindquist, 1998).
Frequently when discussing delegation, RNs will comment: If I am responsible for someone else’s work, I would rather do it myself. This statement infers that one is liable or has to answer for the actions of another. The ANA has stated that responsibility involves liability with the performance of duties in a specific role (ANA Code of Ethics, 2001). Responsibility is a two-way process that is both allocated and accepted (Creative Health Care Management, 2008). Assistive personnel accept responsibility when they agree to perform an activity delegated to them.
Accountability involves a retrospective review which includes critical thinking to determine if the action was appropriate and giving an answer for what has occurred. RNs demonstrate accountability when they answer both for themselves and for others regarding their actions (ANA Code of Ethics, 2001). RNs assure appropriate accountability by verifying that the receiving person accepts the delegation and accompanying responsibility (NCSBN and ANA, 2006).
RNs, by virtue of their professional licensure, have the authority to transfer a selected nursing activity in a specific situation to a competent individual (NCSBN, 1995). Authority is the right to act in areas where one is given and accepts responsibility (Creative Health Care Management, 2008). RNs have authority, or legitimate power, to analyze assessments, plan nursing care, evaluate nursing care, and exercise nursing judgment (NCSBN) which includes delegation. In the scenario at the beginning of the article, the RN had the authority, but did not exercise this authority, to delegate to the LPN and/or nursing assistant.
LPNs are accountable for the quality of their performance... In the delegation process accountability rests within the decision to delegate, while responsibility rests within the performance of the task. LPNs are accountable for the quality of their performance and responsible for caring out the activities assigned to them. When a RN delegates an activity, such as medication administration, to an LPN, the LPN is accountable for safely performing this medication administration according to established regulations and standards, and responsible for completing this activity. The RN is then accountable to follow up with the LPN to review the outcome. This intentional reflection on the delegated activity directs future efforts and promotes learning (Creative Health Care Management, 2008). Understanding the difference between responsibility and accountability helps to clarify how RNs can delegate work to another without being held responsible for their actions.
Delegation and Nursing Judgment
The ANA Code of Ethics (2001) notes that delegation is based on the RN’s judgment concerning a patient’s condition, the competence of all members of the nursing team, and the degree of supervision required. This statement coincides with the Five Rights of Delegation developed by the NCSBN (1995). These Rights of Delegation include: (a) the right task, (b) the right circumstance, (c) the right person, (d) the right direction/communication, and (e) the right supervision.
Additionally, four guidelines for effective delegation have been identified by Koloroutis (2004, p. 136). They include the following:
- Delegation requires RNs to make decisions based on patient needs, complexity of the work, competency of the individual accepting the delegation, and the time that the work is done.
- Delegation requires that timely information regarding the individual patient be shared, defines specific expectations, clarifies any adaptation of the work in the context of the individual patient situation, and provides needed guidance and support by the RN.
- Ultimate accountability for process and outcomes of care – even those he or she has delegated - is retained by the RN.
- RNs make assignments and the care provider accepts responsibility, authority, and accountability for the work assigned.
Delegation decisions are sometimes made based on a list of tasks found in a job description, such as taking vital signs, bathing, or ambulating patients. In these cases the RN is really assigning tasks rather than using professional judgment to match the staff member’s skills to patient needs. Assigning nursing assistants to perform all the baths or take all the vital signs for a group of patients indicates that the delegation is task based rather than judgment based. Making assignments based on a list of tasks in a job description short-circuits the critical thinking skills of the RN because the RN’s judgment is not utilized. Matching the staff member’s expertise to patient needs is essential for sound delegation decisions.
An example of this matching would be an RN’s decision that an LPN with five years of long term care experience prior to working in orthopedics is a more qualified care giver for a 91 year old post operative arthroplasty patient than an LPN who is also available but who has less background in caring for geriatric patients. It is the understanding of the geriatric patient’s needs at this point in time that would lead the RN to intentionally select the LPN with long term care experience. In this situation, the RN would still assume the responsibility of first assessing the patient before delegating the care to the LPN, and the responsibility of clarifying expectations of the care to be given in order to meet the desired outcomes. The RN would periodically assess the patient’s status and not hesitate to instruct the LPN about what to monitor and direct specific interventions. In this example, the matching of patient need to the nurse skills would be very intentional, relying on the RN’s professional judgment.
Although delegation is a skill that requires knowledge and practice, delegation is not commonly identified as an RN competency. Understanding and applying the delegation guidelines presented above provides a foundation for effective delegation.
Delegation and Interpersonal Relationships
The manner in which a team member is asked to perform care by the delegating RN influences the team member’s willingness to respond. Another important factor in delegation is the relationship between the RN and the LPN, nursing assistant, and/or other team member(s). Each member of the healthcare team has a valuable contribution to make to patient care (Creative Health Care Management, 2006). This contribution is magnified when the RN has a healthy interpersonal relationship with the team providing care. Delegation is the invitation for participation. The manner in which a team member is asked to perform care by the delegating RN influences the team member’s willingness to respond. Communication style influences teamwork and relationships. Engaging in direct, open, and honest communication is a characteristic of good teamwork. Thus the ability to delegate and the quality of the delegation is influenced by healthy interpersonal relationships, the manner in which the activity is delegated, and the openness of the communication.
In contrast, in the scenario at the beginning of this article, comments made by various team members set the stage for blaming. The LPN and nursing assistant stated that they would have helped, had the RN asked them to do so, thus blaming the RN. One can wonder why the LPN and nursing assistant did not offer help or take initiative on their own to do more. Had the RN, LPN, and nursing assistant had a better relationship, the LPN and/or assistant might have had a greater desire to see their team provide the best care possible and have taken the initiative to perform the care that was within their scope of practice. Then the RN could have better managed what needed to be done and better patient care could have been provided.
In the ideal situation, the RN, LPN, and nursing assistant would have been active partners in care and shared the work. The RN, anticipating what would need to be done while she was busy with other activities, would have discussed openly, directly, and honestly with the LPN and assistant the additional care she needed to ask them to manage. Healthy interpersonal relationships among all personnel on the shift promote a synergy between team members, enabling them to work together more effectively. Although there is a connection between healthy relationships among team member and quality care, positive interactions among all staff members on a given shift are not always demonstrated in practice.
Healthy interpersonal relationships among all personnel on the shift promote a synergy between team members, enabling them to work together more effectively. Trust is an important element in developing healthy team relationships. Kolorouits (2004) has noted that effective delegation is based on both trust and an understanding of professional practice. When RNs state that they are reluctant to delegate care when they do not know their team member’s skill level, they are likely saying that they avoid delegation because they don’t trust their other team members. Trust, a critical factor in relationships, is based on knowledge of one another’s capabilities and confidence in these abilities. Caregiver consistency, which builds trust, is achieved by staffing schedules and methods of patient assignment which directly impact how work is delegated. The staffing schedule and patient assignment methods that promote consistency among caregivers and between caregivers and their patients become the foundation for enhancing the quality of work relationships (Koloroutis, 2004) as described below.
Delegation and Assignment Patterns
The correlation between consistency of care givers and delegation potential (the amount of nursing care that can legally and safely be assigned to a non-professional staff member) is explored in the Work Complexity Assessment (WCA) Program. WCA is a consultant-led process, developed by Tom Ingalls and licensed through Creative Health Care Management; it helps define and quantify various levels of care complexity based on the knowledge and skill required to perform the work. The delegation potential is based on what could be delegated rather than on traditional delegation practices that are often task based. WCA uses the three scenarios (three different ways of assigning personnel) to determine the delegation potential and examine the impact of staffing schedules and methods of patient assignment on delegation. The three scenarios, namely unit based, pairing, and partnering, vary in the amount of time in which nurses and other personnel work the same shifts and care for the same patients (Koloroutis, 2004). Each scenario is described below.
In the unit-based scenario, assistive personnel, such as the ward secretary and nursing assistant, serve the unit. The nursing assistant works off a task list usually found in the job description, and has minimal direction from, or interaction with the RNs. The nursing assistant is often left to prioritize the multiple tasks given by differing RNs who are unaware of one another’s requests of the assistant. This lack of communication can cause conflicts. The RNs do not know what their fellow RNs have also asked the assistant to do and the assistant has no way of knowing to which RN they are ultimately accountable. Nursing assistants express frustration with conflicts and work expectations that cannot be negotiated. RNs express frustration about not knowing the nursing assistants whereabouts or what they are doing.
An example of the unit based scenario is assigning a nursing assistant to take all the vitals signs or bathe all the patients. The nursing assistant understands what is expected, but may be interrupted in completing the vital signs and baths and asked to ambulate a patient by one RN, who does not know that another RN has just requested the nursing assistant to help with a dressing change. Meanwhile, the nursing assistant is trying to complete the bathes and take all patients’ vital signs, while the RNs are questioning why the nursing assistant hasn’t responded to their requests for help. In these scenarios the emphasis is on completing tasks of care, rather than focusing on the care process. It is difficult to develop healthy relationships and trust under these conditions.
Pairing is the second scenario in which one RN works with an LPN and/or a nursing assistant for the shift (Koloroutis, Felgen, Person, & Wessel, 2007). However, the RN and LPN and/or assistant are not intentionally scheduled to work the same shift each day. Although they may all work the same shift on the next day, they may not be paired on the next day to care for the same patients. For a given shift, however, they work together, or are paired, and care for the same group of patients. Delegation usually increases with pairing. In this scenario, the RN and the LPN or nursing assistant discuss how care is to be prioritized and how it is to be done, and identify expected individualized outcomes for the shift. For instance, a patient’s therapeutic goal for the shift might be for the patient to ambulate the length of the hall 30 minutes after the pain medication has been administered, with a pain rating no greater than 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 at the end of the walk. The nursing assistant would report observations and the pain scale rating to the RN who would then determine if the plan for pain control is adequate. Pairing increases the delegation potential and promotes healthy relationships.
The third scenario is partnering (Koloroutis, Felgen, Person, & Wessel, 2007). In partnering, one RN and one LPN and/or nursing assistant are consistently scheduled to work together, making a commitment to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, trust each other, and advance each other’s knowledge. It is recognized that the RN has the authority to make the delegation decisions. In this model, the LPN, nursing assistant, and RN know one another well enough to anticipate what is going to be needed for patient care. The LPN or nursing assistant who works in a partnership with the RN knows that the RN will want a specific patient to ambulate and to achieve pain control by a certain time within a eight hour shift and/or will need a particular piece of equipment or certain supplies at a certain time. This knowledge enables the assistant to have the information or equipment available even before the RN asks for it. Compared to the assistant in the paired assignment, the assistant who is partnered could anticipate that the RN will want the patient walked within a given timeframe after a pain medication has been administered, and could plan to be available to walk the patient at the appropriate time. Together the RN and the LPN or nursing assistant care for “our patients” rather than “your patients” and “my patients.” This reflects a major shift in thinking and in the method assignments are made. Had partnering been used in the scenario at the beginning of the article, the staff involved would have known each other’s needs and expectations and would have been able to coordinate their efforts more effectively.
Partnering is supported by a staffing schedule that is developed so as to consistently have care givers working together and by the method of patient assignments that ensures the same staff cares for the same group of patients for their length of stay. Partnering reflects a philosophy of care that values continuity and relationships, with management and staff honoring the partnership. The delegation potential is generally highest when staff partner with each other because consistent relationships over time enhance knowledge about capabilities and help to foster trust between members of the nursing staff.
Thus staffing schedules and patient assignments impact the delegation potential. When this connection is understood and valued, staff members see how work can be done differently. This becomes especially effective when staff at the point of care take ownership of a staffing schedule that promotes continuity of care and when the patient assignment matches the talents of the caregivers to the needs of the patient and family.
...the amount of work delegated can be expanded when direct care givers work together consistently. Because the depth of expertise varies within roles, including the RN role, delegation is more difficult when the assistant is not known by the RN. Pairing and partnering increase delegation because trust is developed, relationships are fostered, and growth is supported. In partnering, there is increased commitment to one another and confidence that complex situations can be managed. The partnership enables RNs to perfect their delegation skills more fully.
Some staff members have shared with me that having limited nursing assistants or LPNs available with whom they can partner poses a challenge to implementing this partnering scenario. Creativity is needed to make this scenario work using existing resources. For example, in situations with predominately RN staff, more experienced RNs could mentor new RNs using pairing or partnering, thus enhancing care and helping the new RNs to grow professionally.
Work Complexity Assessment consultants have demonstrated that the amount of work delegated can be expanded when direct care givers work together consistently. Delegation potentials are significantly higher when caregivers are paired or partnered, with the partnered scenario generally having the highest delegation potential. In analyzing the findings from delegation potential studies, RNs frequently cite trust with their co-workers as a key factor when delegating. They state that delegation requires an understanding of one another’s knowledge and skills. Direct care givers who work together consistently have been found to experience the following gains in the work setting: (a) more knowledge about each other’s competence and continued growth in competence; (b) increased commitment to each other and ability to deal with more complex situations; and (c) increased efficiency in getting the work done through natural synergy (Weydt, 2009, p. 11). The Table compares the description, outcomes, and challenges of the unit-based, pairing, and partnering assignment patterns.
Developing Delegation Skills
...role clarification becomes increasingly important as new positions develop to address...complex patient care needs. Delegation is a multifaceted skill set that begins with understanding one’s state nurse practice act which outlines nursing’s legal responsibility, authority, and accountability for patient care. RNs are encouraged to conduct ongoing reviews of their state practice act with special attention given to delegation. The review often prompts discussion about organizational policies and procedures as well as clarifying roles, such as that of the LPN or technical support staff. The role clarification becomes increasingly important as new positions develop to address the variety of complex patient care needs. Understanding the role expectations as well as knowing the expertise of the staff to whom care is delegated influences what the RN delegates.
Delegation skills can be strengthened when:
- RNs understand the nurse state practice act
- Nursing education and nursing service support students and RNs as they continually expand their knowledge about delegation
- Simulation exercises using scenarios found in daily practice are used to teach and demonstrate delegation competency
- Pairing and/or partnering is utilized and supported by the staff schedule and method of patient assignment
- Delegation is viewed as competency that is based on a skill set and that requires ongoing development
Developing delegation skills is indeed a multifaceted activity. Developing delegation skills begins during pre-licensure nursing education. It is important that educators and organizations provide clinical experiences for students to see delegation as a skill set that has to be practiced in order for it to be perfected. Developing practice environments that foster students’ learning of delegation skills reinforces the authority of all RNs to delegate to LPNs and nursing assistants who may see the student as inexperienced. As new RNs enter professional practice, they need ongoing support and education to perfect this skill.
Delegation skills can also be developed using simulation to create practice scenarios reflecting daily practice. Delegation skills can also be developed using simulation to create practice scenarios reflecting daily practice. Both clinical aspects of care and delegation skills can be evaluated during the simulation. Simulation creates the opportunity for feedback and analysis of how pre-licensure students and/or RNs directed the work of others during the simulation, with an emphasis on the effect that the simulated delegation would have had on clinical and financial outcomes. RNs can evaluate their interpersonal skills used during the simulation, as well as review the work performed, asking how the work could have been done differently and considering who else might have been in a position to do this work.
Simulation might be used, for example to improve both the skill of delegation and that of administering blood for a post-operative patient. In the simulation scenario, the required technical skills of blood administration could be evaluated as well as the RN’s ability to appropriately delegate, during the procedure, some responsibilities for patient care to either the LPN or nursing assistant. The post-simulation discussion (debriefing) could include an evaluation of both the blood-administration procedure and also the quality of the delegation with a focus on the RN’s communication skills. The LPN and nursing assistant could provide feedback as to their perception of the RN’s delegating skills.
It is important that educators and organizations provide clinical experiences for students to see delegation as a skill set that has to be practiced in order for it to be perfected. Delegation is a complex professional skill requiring sophisticated clinical judgment and final accountability for patients’ care. Effective delegation is based on one’s state nurse practice act; it serves to maximize patient care resources. Concepts of responsibility, accountability, and authority are integral to each RN’s understanding of professional nursing practice, which includes properly assuming authority for the decisions and outcomes associated with patient care, sharing the process of patient care with other responsible members of the nursing team, and holding all members of the nursing team accountable for their responsibilities. Delegation requires RNs to use critical thinking skills in order to match staff expertise with patient and family needs. Staff relationships also influence the delegation potential and the delegation process. Three assignment scenarios are used in Work Complexity Assessment, namely unit based, pairing, and partnering, to determine the delegation potential for a specific patient care unit/service. Staffing schedules and consistent patient assignments that support pairing and partnering enable staff members to increase knowledge about each other and help to foster a strong sense of trust, thus increasing the delegation potential.
When RNs do not effectively delegate to others, quality of care can be lessened and valuable resources can be mismanaged. Resources will surely continue to shrink and care demands will surely continue to rise, thus increasing the risks of inappropriate delegation. Having clarity about what can be delegated helps to define quality professional practice not only for nurses but also for other team members, patients, and families.
Alice Weydt, RN, MS
Ms. Weydt has more than thirty years of experience working in acute care settings and leading nursing and interdisciplinary teams in a variety of acute care settings. As she has worked to improve patient care processes and outcomes, she has focused considerable attention on developing healthy interpersonal relationships and delivery systems that span the care continuum. She currently serves as Director of Patient Care Services at Arcadia Medical Center, Arcadia, WI, and adjunct faculty with Creative Health Care Management. She earned her Master’s degree in Healthcare Administration from Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee, WI, and her BSN from Montana State University. Alice is also a graduate of the University of Minnesota Independent Study Program in Patient Care Administration.
© 2010 OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing
Article published May 31, 2010
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