A study of nurses' ethical climate perceptions: Compromising in an uncompromising environment

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Acting ethically, in accordance with professional and personal moral values, lies at the heart of nursing practice. However, contextual factors, or obstacles within the work environment, can constrain nurses in their ethical practice - hence the importance of the workplace ethical climate. Interest in nurse workplace ethical climates has snowballed in recent years because the ethical climate has emerged as a key variable in the experience of nurse moral distress. Significantly, this study appears to be the first of its kind carried out in New Zealand.


The purpose of this study was to explore and describe how registered nurses working on a medical ward in a New Zealand hospital perceive their workplace ethical climate.

Research design/participants/context:

This was a small, qualitative descriptive study. Seven registered nurses were interviewed in two focus group meetings. An inductive method of thematic data analysis was used for this research.

Ethical considerations:

Ethics approval for this study was granted by the New Zealand Ministry of Health's Central Regional Health and Disability Ethics Committee on 14 June 2012.


The themes identified in the data centred on three dominant elements that - together - shaped the prevailing ethical climate: staffing levels, patient throughput and the attitude of some managers towards nursing staff.


While findings from this study regarding staffing levels and the power dynamics between nurses and managers support those from other ethical climate studies, of note is the impact of patient throughput on local nurses' ethical practice. This issue has not been singled out as having a detrimental influence on ethical climates elsewhere.


Moral distress is inevitable in an ethical climate where the organisation's main priorities are perceived by nursing staff to be budget and patient throughput, rather than patient safety and care.

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