Image shows a toy heart and stethoscope sitting on a table

The History of National Nurses Week

March 28, 2024

Celebrated the first week in May, Nurses week is a week long celebration designed to honor healthcare’s unsung heroes, healthcare’s first line of defense.

Nurses week has been around, in some form, for over 40+, but now more than ever, our Nurses need our support. This article will serve as a Nurses Week 101, breaking down the long history of Nurses week, the current state of healthcare workers, and offer ways you and your organization can celebrate one of your most vital resources.

What is Nurses Week

Nurses Week began when former President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation on March 25th, 1982, declaring that “National Recognition Day for Nurses” would be celebrated on May 6th, 1982. In 1990, the American Nurses Association (ANA) expanded the recognition to a week-long celebration, from May 6-12, as National Nurses Week. Celebrated annually, it highlights the contributions, sacrifices, and impact of nurses across the globe.

A fun fact: Nurses Week coincides with the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. Encompassing various activities, themes, events, and acknowledgments, Nurses Week is aimed at celebrating the profession and those who have dedicated their lives to higher calling of healing. 

Though there are many different approaches and programs organizations can implement to craft the perfect Nurses Week celebration, each healthcare organization celebrates in its own meaningful way. Some offer more personal touches, while others actively budget and plan activities, gifts, and other recognition moments to enhance the week. 

However it is celebrated, one central idea remains: Nurses Week is a special time that allows healthcare professionals and patients alike to acknowledge the indispensable role of nurses in healthcare. It's a time to recognize their dedication, hard work, and the compassionate care they provide.

While highlighting the wonderful work that Nurses do on a regular basis, the week also serves to raise awareness about the challenges nurses face, such as long hours, emotional and physical stress, and the need for continuous professional development. The current work environment and challenges that nurses face on a daily basis emphasize the need for consistent and effective recognition to support and nurture nurses’ overall wellbeing.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) offers this brief history of National Nurses Week:

  • 1953 — Dorothy Sutherland of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare sent a proposal to President Eisenhower to proclaim a "Nurse Day" in October of the following year. The proclamation was never made.
  • 1954 — National Nurses Week was observed from October 11 - 16. The year of the observance marked the 100th anniversary of Florence Nightingale's mission to Crimea. Representative Frances P. Bolton sponsored the bill for a nurse week. Apparently, a bill for National Nurse Week was introduced in the 1955 Congress, but no action was taken. Congress discontinued its practice of joint resolutions for national weeks of various kinds.
  • 1972 — Again, a resolution was presented by the House of Representatives for the President to proclaim "National Registered Nurse Day." It did not occur
  • 1974 — In January of that year, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) proclaimed that May 12 would be "International Nurse Day." (May 12 is the birthday of Florence Nightingale.) Since 1965, the ICN has celebrated "International Nurse Day."
  • 1974 — In February of that year, a week was designated by the White House as National Nurse Week, and President Nixon issued a proclamation.
  • 1978 — New Jersey Governor Brendon Byrne declared May 6 as "Nurses Day." Edward Scanlan of Red Bank, N.J., took up the cause to perpetuate the recognition of nurses in his state. Mr. Scanlan had this date listed in Chase's Calendar of Annual Events. He promoted the celebration on his own.
  • 1981 — ANA, along with various nursing organizations, rallied to support a resolution initiated by nurses in New Mexico through their Congressman, Manuel Lujan, to have May 6, 1982, established as "National Recognition Day for Nurses."
  • 1982 — In February, the ANA Board of Directors formally acknowledged May 6, 1982 as "National Nurses Day." The action affirmed a joint resolution of the United States Congress designating May 6 as "National Recognition Day for Nurses."
  • 1982 — President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation on March 25, proclaiming "National Recognition Day for Nurses" to be May 6, 1982.
  • 1990 — The ANA Board of Directors expanded the recognition of nurses to a week-long celebration, declaring May 6 - 12, 1991, as National Nurses Week.
  • 1993 — The ANA Board of Directors designated May 6 - 12 as permanent dates to observe National Nurses Week in 1994 and in all subsequent years.
  • 1996 — The ANA initiated "National RN Recognition Day" on May 6, 1996, to honor the nation's indispensable registered nurses for their tireless commitment 365 days a year. The ANA encourages its state and territorial nurses associations and other organizations to acknowledge May 6, 1996 as "National RN Recognition Day."
  • 1997 — The ANA Board of Directors, at the request of the National Student Nurses Association, designated May 8 as National Student Nurses Day.

Current State of the Healthcare Employee Challenges

Perhaps more so than any other industry, the healthcare sector has seen significant challenges in the post-pandemic work environment. These challenges include high turnover rates, staffing shortages, and low engagement levels among healthcare workers. 

Nurses, in particular, have experienced these challenges acutely, with the pressures of the job contributing to burnout and dissatisfaction. These challenges have profound implications on not only Nurses overall wellbeing, but the quality of patient care. 

Here are just a few of the challenges faced in the current state of healthcare:

High Turnover Rates

The healthcare industry experiences some of the highest turnover rates among all sectors. According to a report by NSI Nursing Solutions, the average hospital turnover rate was approximately 18.7% in 2021, with a significant portion attributed to nursing roles. This high turnover is costly, both financially and in terms of patient care continuity.

Staffing Shortages

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) estimates that Approximately 30,200 new APRNs, which are prepared in master's and doctoral programs, will be needed each year through 2031 to meet the rising demand for care.

Low Engagement Levels

Engagement levels among healthcare workers, including nurses, are concerning. A Gallup survey found that only 34% of healthcare workers are engaged in their jobs. This lack of engagement is linked to several factors, including high stress levels, emotional exhaustion, and a perceived lack of support from management.


Nurse burnout is a critical issue, with a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine finding that over 30% of nurses report experiencing burnout. Symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, which can lead to decreased quality of patient care.


Disengaged and burnt-out employees are more likely to take unscheduled time off. According to Gallup, disengaged employees have a 37% higher rate of absenteeism. This not only affects the quality of patient care but also places additional strain on other staff members.

Productivity and Profitability

The same Gallup report indicates that disengaged employees show 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability. In healthcare, where outcomes directly impact human lives, the stakes of reduced productivity and efficiency are particularly high.

Cost of Disengagement

On top of declining quality of patient care, disengagement carries a significant financial burden. Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce estimates that the cost of disengaged employees could be as high as 3.4 times the average salary across the organization due to lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover.

This data and state of the healthcare workforce highlight the urgent need for healthcare organizations to adopt comprehensive strategies focused on improving employee engagement, supporting mental health and wellbeing. Celebrating Nurses Week is just one of the many ways to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of nurses, to help alleviate and address the root causes of turnover and burnout effectively.

Why Nurses Week is Significant and Ways It Can Be Celebrated

Nurses Week is crucial for highlighting the value of nursing as a profession and its contribution to society's wellbeing. It serves as a reminder of the human element in healthcare, showcasing the empathy, care, and support nurses provide beyond their technical skills. Celebrating Nurses Week helps to boost morale, foster a sense of pride among nurses, and encourage the public to appreciate and support nurses in their vital work.

On top of a strong recognition program (see the Top 10 gifts to give Nurses during Nurses Week), there are three easy ways companies can celebrate Nurses Week by:

  1. Offering Recognition: A simple and personalized thank-you note can go a long way toward fostering a deeper sense of value. Additionally, organizations can look to offer awards for excellence in nursing and public acknowledgment of nurses' hard work and dedication.
  2. Creating a Culture of Appreciation: Implementing peer recognition programs and creating platforms for sharing positive stories and experiences. Also, don’t limit it just to co-workers. Have the patients and nurses' families get in on the fun, too.
  3. Enhancing Workplace Wellbeing: Create a supportive and empathetic culture by offering initiatives focused on mental health, physical wellness, and a supportive work environment.

Themes for Nurses Week

The tradition of adopting annual themes for Nurses Week began to provide focus and direction to the celebrations, helping to highlight specific aspects or challenges within the nursing profession. 

Each theme is selected to reflect the current healthcare landscape, nursing achievements, and areas needing attention or advocacy. Additionally, these themes are meant to inspire, unify, and galvanize action among nurses, healthcare institutions, and the broader community while reflecting on the progress made — and the journey ahead — in improving healthcare for all through the critical work of nurses.

This year, the American Nurses Association (ANA) has selected "Nurses Make the Difference" as the theme for National Nurses Week 2024. The theme is meant to honor nurses for their compassion, care, and positive impact on lives. The campaign #NursesLightUpTheSky will also be featured, where landmarks around the world will be lit up to celebrate nurses.

Enhance Nurses Week with Inspirus

If you’re looking to make Nurses Week 2024 memorable for your hard-working staff, we’d love to talk with you! Inspirus’ new recognition program, Connects Celebrates, provides a flexible, digital recognition experience that is perfect for celebrating your team during National Nurses Week.

With over 100 million rewards and options across gift cards, merchandise, experiences, and more, your employees can select a gift that’s meaningful to them - from the brands they know and love - aligned to your budget. Contact us today to implement a program your Nurses will love!

Graphic says "Boost Job Satisfaction and Morale with a Meaningful Recognition Program. Celebrate your nurses with a special gift from the brands they know and love. Learn More." The graphic shows the following logos: Weber, Fandango, Apple, Grubhub, Cabela's, Airbnb, and Black + Decker.