Moral distress

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  1. Read the article, Moral Distress and Psychological Empowerment in Critical Care Nurses Caring for Adults at End of Life.
  2. Identify common causes of moral distress in critical care nurses who are caring for dying patients.
  3. Describe the concept of psychological empowerment and the 4 cognitions it encompasses.
  4. Discuss the study findings as related to the relationship between moral distress intensity and frequency, psychological empowerment, and participant demographics. 
  5. Think about a situation where moral distress would be an issue in the last hours of life in your patient.  Then, describe why it would be an example of moral distress.

Notice to CNE enrollees:
A closed-book, multiple-choice examination
following this article tests your under standing of
the following objectives:

1. Identify common causes of moral distress in
critical care nurses who are caring for dying
patients.

2. Describe the concept of psychological empow-
erment and the 4 cognitions it encompasses.

3. Discuss the study findings as related to the
relationship between moral distress intensity
and frequency, psychological empowerment,
and participant demographics.

To read this article and take the CNE test online,
visit www.ajcconline.org and click “CNE Articles
in This Issue.” No CNE test fee for AACN members.

By Annette M. Browning, RN, PhD, CNS

Background Critical care nurses providing care for adults at

the end of life may encounter moral distress when they cannot

do what they believe is ethically correct. Psychological empow-

erment can decrease moral distress among critical care nurses.

Objectives To describe the relationships between moral dis-

tress, psychological empowerment, and demographics in criti-

cal care nurses caring for patients at the end of life.

Method A total of 277 critical care nurses were surveyed via

the Moral Distress Scale and the Psychological Empowerment

Instrument. Responses were scored on a Likert scale of 1 to 7.

Results Moral distress intensity was high (mean 5.34, SD 1.32)

and positively correlated with age (r = 0.179, P = .01). Moral

distress frequency was moderate (mean 2.51, SD 0.87) and

negatively correlated with nurses’ collaboration in end-of-life

patient care conferences (r = -0.191, P = .007). Psychological

empowerment scores (mean 5.31, SD 1.00) were high and

positively correlated with age (r = 0.139, P = .03), years of

experience (r = 0.165, P = .01), collaboration in end-of-life-care

conferences (r = 0.163, P = .01), and end-of-life-care education

(r = 0.221, P = .001) and were negatively correlated with moral

distress frequency (r = -0.194, P = .01). Multiple regression

analysis revealed that empowerment was a significant predic-

tor of moral distress frequency (β= .222, P < .01).

Conclusion The significant negative correlation between psy-

chological empowerment and frequency of moral distress in

these nurses indicated that nurses with higher perceived empow-

erment experience moral distress less often. This finding is of

particular interest as interventions to decrease moral distress

are sought. (American Journal of Critical Care. 2013;22:143-152)

MORAL DISTRESS AND

PSYCHOLOGICAL

EMPOWERMENT IN CRITICAL

CARE NURSES CARING FOR

ADULTS AT END OF LIFE

www.ajcconline.org AJCC AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CRITICAL CARE, March 2013, Volume 22, No. 2 143

© 2013 American Association of Critical-Care Nurses
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4037/ajcc2013437

Challenges in the Critical Care Workplace

1.0 HourC EN

by AACN on July 20, 2017http://ajcc.aacnjournals.org/Downloaded from

Background
The advent of life-support technology during the

past half century has drastically changed the focus
of caring for dying patients. Critical care units were
developed in order to monitor critically ill patients
appropriately, and critical care nurses were provided
specialized education for the purpose of providing
optimal care for critically ill patients. Although
advanced technology has brought with it the prom-
ise of more efficient treatment techniques, extending
life inappropriately and futile prolonging of patients’
suffering have become commonplace for critical

care nurses caring for dying patients,6

thus causing moral distress in critical
care nurses.

Jameton7 was the first to define
moral distress in the nursing literature.
Moral distress was defined as discom-
fort or internal conflict related to ethi-
cal dilemmas encountered in nursing
practice when constraints prevented
the nurse from following the course

of action believed to be right. Obstacles contributing
to the inability to act upon what the nurse believes
to be right have many origins. Beckstrand and
Kirchhoff1 identified several obstacles that 864 criti-
cal care nurses perceived while providing end-of-life
care, including the perception that their opinions
related to end-of-life care decisions were not being
recognized and valued. The highest ranking obstacles

in this study were as follows: Families not under-
standing the term “life-saving measures” and its
implications, families requesting life-saving measures
contrary to patients’ wishes, and patients’ treatments
continuing although painful or uncomfortable.

In 2006, the American Association of Critical-
Care Nurses (AACN) identified end-of-life care chal-
lenges as a significant source of moral distress in
critical care nurses. AACN has issued a position
statement on moral distress, proclaiming it a serious
problem in nursing.8

Psychological empowerment is a mechanism by
which people gain mastery of their affairs.9 In the
nursing literature, empowerment has been examined
on the basis of 2 conceptualizations, structural and
psychological. Psychological empowerment (one’s
belief in one’s ability to be empowered) was meas-
ured in this study.

As critical care nurses develop a more active
voice in collaboration with physicians, ethics com-
mittees, and members of the multidisciplinary health
care team, the facilitation of empowerment among
nurses might decrease moral distress and enhance
patient care outcomes at the end of life. No studies
have been reported to date that specifically examine
the relationship between moral distress and empow-
erment in nursing thus, in this study, we sought to
determine if such a relationship exists.

Moral Distress Related to End-of-Life
Care

Several studies have associated levels of moral
distress in nurses with the delivery of end-of-life care
to patients.10-12 In most of the studies reviewed, the
most common phenomenon related to end-of-life care
that is causing moral distress in critical care nurses is
the delivery of futile care. The delivery of futile care at
the end-of-life was first examined by Wilkinson,13 who

One-fifth of the patients cared for by critical care nurses die in the intensive
care unit.1 The American Association of Colleges of Nursing2 has expressed
growing concern about an increase in the use of inappropriate life-support
treatments related to end-of-life care. In the past decade, awareness of
potential inadequacies in caring for the dying has been increasing, and

many of these inadequacies are related to the use of life support in critical care settings.3 In
cases of futility, aggressive medical treatment at the end of life is well documented as a cause
of moral distress in critical care nurses.4 Moral distress occurs when nurses are unable to per-
form according to what they believe to be ethically correct. Increasing psychological empow-
erment in nurses is a means of strengthening the impact that nurses have to innovatively
influence decision making related to patient care.5 Increasing psychological empowerment
may be a means of ameliorating moral distress in critical care nurses caring for dying adults.

About the Author
Annette M. Browning is an associate professor of nursing
and director of simulation learning at Biola University,
La Mirada, California.

Corresponding author: Annette M. Browning, RN, PhD, CNS,

982 Big Sky Lane, Orange, CA 92869 (e-mail: annette.
[email protected]).

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Moral distress
occurs when

nurses are unable
to do what they

believe to be
ethically correct.

by AACN on July 20, 2017http://ajcc.aacnjournals.org/Downloaded from

4 consecutive weeks. If subscribers were interested in
participating, they used a link that led them to the
online survey, which started with a cover letter
explaining the details of the study further.

Data Collection (Instruments and Procedure)

Two valid and reliable survey instruments were
used in this study, the 32-item Moral Distress Scale
(MDS)10 and the 16-item Psychological Empower-
ment Instrument (PEI)22 in addition to the demo-
graphic data survey (see Figure). The MDS-32 has
been tested for content validity twice.23 All items were
considered relevant in both testings. Test-retest relia-
bility of the MDS-32 was 0.86 (P= .01).23 The high
reliability may reflect redundancy of some items. The
Cronbach alpha was 0.93 (P< .01), demonstrating
high reliability. The MDS was later expanded to 38
items. These additional items were unrelated to end-
of-life care, so the original 32-item MDS was used.

The MDS measures moral distress intensity, the
level at which the nurse experiences painful feelings
related to a given situation (none to great extent), and
moral distress frequency, how often the nurse experi-
ences the painful feeling associated with the distress-
ful situation (never to very frequently) on a Likert
scale from 1 to 7. The MDS uses 3 factors or subscales
to measure moral distress: (1) individual responsibil-
ity (refers to the nurse participating in care not agreed
with or ignoring actions one should take—20 items),
(2) not in patient’s best interest (refers to participating

built on the work of Jameton.7 Multiple studies4,10,13-18

have shown that futile care, where nurses perceived
that the patient would not benefit from care, caused
the most significant levels of moral distress in nurses.

Theories of Psychological
Empowerment

Bandura19 theorized that degrees of empower-
ment are perceived as one’s sense of self-efficacy is
facilitated. Self-efficacy occurs when one’s sense of
self-determination is strengthened or one’s sense of
powerlessness is weakened. Furthermore, the
strength of one’s perceived empowerment determines
how obstacles are viewed and the degree to which
one overcomes the obstacles.20

Conger and Kanungo21 took self-efficacy a step
further by reiterating that true empowerment occurs
when convictions of one’s own effectiveness are suc-
cessfully executed and not merely hoped for. Thomas
and Velthouse9 further postulated empowerment
as multifaceted, encompassing 4 cognitions: (1)
meaning, the value one attaches to one’s standards,
(2) competence, the belief that one is able to carry
out one’s beliefs in action, (3) self-determination,
the sense that one has control over one’s autonomy,
and (4) impact, the degree to which one perceives
one’s work as having influence.

Conceptual Framework
Although critical care nurses may perceive them-

selves as having some degree of empowerment with
respect to decision making related to end-of-life care,
they see themselves as often unable to contribute
significantly to decisions they believe to be correct.
This “gap” between nurses having empirical knowl-
edge and not being able to apply that knowledge
effectively was the impetus for this study intended to
explore the association between moral distress
intensity, moral distress frequency, psychological
empowerment, and select demographics of critical
care nurses (see Figure).

Methods
Sample

A cross-sectional descriptive survey design was
used to study a target population of critical care nurses
caring for adults at the end of life. A sample of 277
critical care nurses who were on AACN’s e-mail
newsletter list were recruited for this study. Inclusion
criteria were as follows: (1) must be a critical care staff
nurse and (2) must have had experience with caring
for dying adults in the critical care setting before
completing the survey tools. A brief paragraph describ-
ing the study was placed in the AACN newsletter for

Figure Conceptual framework for the relationship between moral
distress (intensity and frequency), psychological empowerment,
and select demographics.

Abbreviations: AACN, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses; ELNEC, End-of-
Life Nursing Education Consortium.

Psychological
empowerment

• Meaning

• Competence

• Self-determination

• Impact

Moral distress
Intensity

Frequency

• Not in patient’s
best interest

• Individual
responsibility

• Deception

Nursing
characteristics

• Age

• Number of years in critical care

• Level of education

• Work status

• AACN membership

• AACN specialty certification

• Active collaboration in end-of-
life patient care conferences

• ELNEC critical care training

• End-of-life care continuing
education (within past year)

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in care that the nurse considers inappropriate because
of futility for the patient— 7 items), and (3) decep-
tion (refers to the nurse not addressing issues hon-
estly, related to impending death of a patient—3
items). Data from 2 items (12 and 13) on the MDS-32
pertain to children. These 2 items were omitted from
the tables presented here because of the study’s focus
on the care of adults; however, all 32 items were
administered in the survey given to participants.

The PEI is highly reliable and valid,22,24 with
reported reliability coefficients ranging from 0.62 to
0.74. The PEI used 4 domains or subscales, previously
defined, to measure psychological empowerment:
(1) meaning, (2) competence, (3) self-determination,
and (4) impact. Each domain addressed 4 items
(see Figure) measuring empowerment. Items were
scored as follows: 7 = very strongly agree, 6 = strongly

agree, 5 = agree, 4 = neutral, 3 = dis-
agree, 2 = strongly disagree, 1 = very
strongly disagree.

Quantitative data were collected
from October 28, 2010 to November
25, 2010. From the approximately
80 000 e-mailed newsletters, 277
recipients returned the survey. The
return rate was approximately 0.35%.

Participants were excluded from analyses when they
left 25% or more responses blank on any given
measure. For example, if a participant left 4 out of
10 responses blank on the MDS, they were left out
of analyses comparing moral distress scores with
other scale scores. They were included, however, in
the descriptive statistics for other measures that
were sufficiently completed (<25% missing).

Approval by the institutional review board of the
University of San Diego for the protection of human
subjects was obtained for this study. The institutional
review board determined that written informed
consent was not required. A cover letter approved
by the institutional review board was posted on the
AACN Web site, informing readers about the follow-
ing information: that participation in the study was
voluntary and study data were kept confidential, risks
and benefits of participation, and how to contact the
investigator for questions. The participants were assured
of their anonymity both in data collection and the
publication of data. All data were stored on a pass-
word-protected computer. No identifying information,
including e-mail addresses, was included in the
Excel spreadsheet uploaded from SurveyMonkey.

Statistical Analysis and Variables

Percentages were used to describe the categorical
variables. Appropriate correlational statistics, based

on variable level of data (continuous or categorical),
were used to examine relationships among variables.
Moral distress intensity and moral distress frequency
were 2 separate dependent or outcome variables
measured by the MDS. Multiple linear regression
analysis was used to examine associations between
the dependent variable of moral distress intensity
and the independent or predictor variables (psycho-
logical empowerment and demographics) and the
dependent variable of moral distress frequency and
the independent or predictor variables (psychologi-
cal empowerment and demographics).

Results
The following demographics were found within

the sample: The participants had a mean age of 46.9
years (SD 10.4). The mean number of years of experi-
ence working as a critical care nurse was reported as
17.45 (SD 11). Most participants (n = 234, 84.5%)
were working full-time in critical care. The percentage
of participants employed part-time was 11.6% (n=32).
Only 1 participant was working per diem. More than
half of the nurses (54.6%) reported being active par-
ticipants in end-of-life patient care conferences. Most
of the responding nurses had a bachelor of science
degree in nursing (47.1%); 29.2% of the participants
had an associate degree in nursing; 19.7% of the nurses
had a master of science degree in nursing, and 3.3%
of the participating nurses were doctorally prepared.
Most of the participants (55.2%) had specialty certi-
fication by the AACN, and most participants (54.6%)
also reported having had end-of-life care education
within the past year. A large majority of participating
nurses (86%) reported being members of the AACN.
Only 5.8% of the participants (n=16) reported partic-
ipation in the critical care training provided by the
End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC).

Moral Distress Intensity and Moral Distress

Frequency

Moral distress intensity and moral distress fre-
quency scores ranging from 0 to 2.33 were considered
low, 2.34 to 4.66 moderate, and 4.67 to 7.00 high.
Scores for moral distress scale subscales and total
scores were calculated separately for both intensity
and frequency (Table 1).

Mean scores for items on the moral distress
intensity scale ranged from 4.39 to 6.05, with a
overall mean total score of 5.34 (SD 1.32). The 3
highest-scoring items for moral distress intensity
were “assisting [physician] who in my opinion is
providing incompetent care” (mean 6.05), “work
in a situation when the number of staff is too low
and care is inadequate” (mean, 5.97), and “continue

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Most participants
reported having had

end-of-life care
education within

the past year.

by AACN on July 20, 2017http://ajcc.aacnjournals.org/Downloaded from

Table 1
Moral distress intensity and frequency of respondents (N=277) according to subscales:
not in patient’s best interest, individual responsibility, and deception

Not in patient’s
best interest

Individual
responsibility

Deception

1. Follow family’s wishes for patient care I don’t agree with

2. Follow family’s wishes to continue life support when not in patient’s best interest

3. Follow physician’s orders for unnecessary tests

5. Initiate life-saving actions when I think it prolongs death

15. Carry out physician’s orders for unnecessary tests and treatments on terminally ill
patients

22. Prepare a terminally ill elderly patient receiving mechanical ventilation for surgery to
have a mass removed

23. Prepare an elderly severely demented patient who is a no code for placement of a
gastrostomy tube

Not in patient’s best interest subscale score

4. Assist physician who performs test or treatment without patient’s consent

6. Ignore situations of suspected abuse of patient by caregivers

7. Ignore situations of inadequate consent from patient

8. Perform procedure when the patient is not adequately informed

9. Carry out work assignment in which I do not feel professionally competent

10. Avoid taking action when a nurse colleague has made a medication error

11. Let medical students perform painful procedures on patients solely to increase their skill

14. Assist physicians practicing procedures on a patient after cardiopulmonary resuscitation
has been unsuccessful

16. Work with “unsafe” levels of nurse staffing

17. Carry out order to discontinue treatment because patient can no longer pay

18. Continue to care for a hopelessly injured patient receiving mechanical ventilation
when no one will discontinue the ventilation

19. Observe without intervening when personnel do not respect patient’s dignity

20. Follow physician’s order not to tell patient the truth when he/she asks for it

21. Assist physician who in my opinion is providing incompetent care

24. Discharge patient based on diagnosis-related groups although he has many teaching needs

25. Provide better care for those who can afford to pay

26. Follow the family’s request not to discuss dying with a dying patient who asks about dying

27. Follow physician’s request not to discuss death with a dying patient who asks about dying

28. Work in a situation when the number of staff is too low and care is inadequate

32. Follow physician’s request not to discuss code status with family when patient is
incompetent

Individual responsibility subscale score

29. Give medications intravenously during a code with no compressions or intubation

30. Give only hemodynamic stabilizing medications intravenously during a code with no
compression or intubation

31. Follow physician’s request not to discuss code status with patient

Deception subscale score

Total of all subscales

4.81 (1.52)

5.47 (1.46)

5.22 (1.53)

5.72 (1.46)

4.39 (2.18)

5.09 (1.91)

5.24 (1.87)

5.13 (1.25)

5.27 (2.08)

5.51 (2.16)

5.42 (1.76)

5.36 (1.71)

5.27 (1.95)

4.89 (1.84)

5.40 (2.09)

5.09 (2.35)

5.82 (1.56)

5.36 (2.39)

5.88 (1.50)

5.67 (1.68)

5.83 (1.78)

6.05 (1.56)

5.15 (2.04)

5.20 (2.23)

5.79 (1.74)

5.76 (1.86)

5.97 (1.72)

5.50 (2.03)

5.50 (1.47)

4.68 (2.18)

4.49 (2.20)

5.54 (2.05)

4.92 (1.82)

5.34 (1.32)

4.08 (1.66)

4.45 (1.65)

4.28 (1.80)

3.73 (1.71)

3.71 (1.77)

2.42 (1.41)

3.17 (1.67)

3.69 (1.22)

2.01 (1.44)

1.60 (1.17)

2.22 (1.52)

2.21 (1.46)

1.91 (1.12)

2.05 (1.20)

2.00 (1.52)

1.45 (1.15)

3.57 (1.88)

1.43 (1.26)

3.61 (1.81)

2.21 (1.68)

1.86 (1.24)

2.49 (1.36)

1.95 (1.43)

1.67 (1.40)

2.22 (1.27)

1.98 (1.33)

2.91 (1.79)

1.91 (1.43)

2.15 (0.88)

2.29 (1.506)

2.30 (1.46)

1.87 (1.37)

2.16 (1.20)

2.51 (0.87)

Subscale Item Intensity Frequency

Mean (SD)

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to care for a hopelessly injured patient on a ventila-
tor when no one will discontinue the ventilator”
(mean 5.88). The lowest-scoring item for moral dis-
tress intensity was “carry out [physician]’s orders for
unnecessary tests and treatments on terminally ill
patients” (mean 4.39).

Mean scores for items on the moral distress fre-
quency scale ranged from 1.43 to 4.45, with an overall
mean total of 2.51 (SD 0.87). The 3 highest-scoring
items for moral distress frequency were “follow family’s
wishes to continue life support when not in patient’s
best interest” (mean 4.45), “follow [physician]’s orders
for unnecessary tests” (mean 4.28), and “follow family

wishes for patient care I don’t agree
with” (mean 4.08). The lowest-scoring
item for moral distress frequency was,
“carry out order to discontinue treat-
ment because patient can no longer
pay” (mean 1.43).

Total scores for both moral dis-
tress intensity and moral distress fre-
quency were determined for each of

the 3 subscale categories (Table 1). All moral distress
intensity subscale totals were high: (1) not in patient’s
best interest (mean 5.13, SD 1.25), (2) individual
responsibility (mean 5.50, SD 1.47), and (3) decep-
tion (mean 4.92, SD 1.82).

Moral distress frequency subscales were as follows:
(1) not in patient’s best interest (mean 3.69, SD 1.22),
(2) individual responsibility (mean 2.15, SD 0.88),
and (3) deception (mean 2.16, SD 1.43). The total
score for moral distress intensity was high (mean
5.34, SD 1.32), and the total score for moral distress
frequency was moderate (mean 2.51, SD 0.87).

Psychological Empowerment

The PEI was used to determine levels of empow-
erment of critical care nurses in the workplace. Data
from this instrument were scored in the following
manner: individual item mean scores, mean subscale
scores, and a mean total score. Similar to moral dis-
tress, PEI scores from 0 to 2.33 were considered low,
2.34 to 4.66 moderate, and 4.67 to 7.00 high.

PEI items ranged from moderate (mean 3.88) to
high (mean 6.22). The highest scoring PEI item was,
“I really care about what I do on my job” (mean 6.22,
SD 1.16). The lowest scoring item was, “I have a great
deal of control over what happens in my department”
(mean 3.88, SD 1.52). PEI subscale scores were all
high: meaning (mean 6.06, SD 1.09), competence
(mean 5.92, SD 1.02), self-determination (mean 5.03,
SD 1.18), and impact (mean 4.22, SD 1.47). Overall,
the total PEI mean score indicated a high degree of
psychological empowerment (mean 5.31, SD 1.00).

Correlational Analysis of Moral Distress and

Demographics

Weak but significant positive correlations were
found between the moral distress item “not in
patient’s best interest” and age (r= 0.179, P= .01)
and ELNEC critical care training (r= 0.185, P= .008).
Likewise weak but significant positive correlations
were found between ELNEC training and the items
“not in patient’s best interest” (r= 0.194, P= .006)
and total score for moral distress frequency (r=0.165,
P= .02). A weak but significant negative correlation
was found between active collaboration in end-of-
life patient care conferences and items related to
deception (r= -0.191, P= .007).

Correlational Analysis of Empowerment and

Demographics

Several significant positive correlations were
found between psychological empowerment and
the nurses’ demographics (Table 2). Significant and
moderate correlations were found between empow-
erment related to competence and years of critical
care experience (r= 0.255, P= .001). Other moderate
and significant correlations were found between
empowerment related to self-determination and col-
laboration in end-of-life care conferences (r= 0.217,
P= .001) and end-of-life care education in the past
year (r= .209, P= .001). In addition, a significantly
positive moderate correlation was found between
empowerment related to impact and collaboration
in end-of-life care conferences (r= 0.253, P= .001).

All empowerment subscale scores (meaning,
competence, self-determination, and impact) and
total empowerment scores significantly correlated
positively with end-of-life care education in the past
year (r= 0.221, P= .001). No correlations were found
between empowerment and AACN membership or
CCRN certification; therefore, these data were omit-
ted from Table 2.

Moral Distress Intensity/Frequency and

Psychological Empowerment

Relationships between psychological empower-
ment and moral distress intensity and frequency were
computed by using a Pearson product coefficient.
A moderate and significant negative correlation was
found between moral distress frequency related to
individual responsibility and empowerment related to
impact (r= -0.249, P= .001) and moral distress fre-
quency total scores and empowerment related to
impact (r= -0.229, P= .002). Total psychological
empowerment scores negatively correlated with
moral distress frequency (individual responsibility
subscale; r= -0.213, P= .004; see Table 2).

148 �AJCC�AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CRITICAL CARE, March 2013, Volume 22, No. 2 www.ajcconline.org

Nurses with higher
levels of perceived
empowerment will
experience moral

distress less often.

by AACN on July 20, 2017http://ajcc.aacnjournals.org/Downloaded from

predictor of moral distress frequency (β=.222, P<.01).
For every 1-point increase on the PEI, moral distress
frequency scores decreased by 0.222 points (P≤ .01).
The analysis indicated that it can be predicted that
ELNEC critical care trained nurses will experience
moral distress more often, and nurses with higher
levels of perceived empowerment will experience
moral distress less often.

Discussion
Moral distress intensity was high among critical

care nurses, whereas moral distress frequency was
moderate to low. These findings are consistent with
the results of Corley et al,23 in that the frequency was

Relationships between Moral Distress,

Empowerment, and Demographics

Multiple regression analysis was used to test if
any demographic variables combined with total PEI
scores were predictors of the frequency of experienc-
ing moral distress. The results of the regression analy-
sis indicated that 2 predictors explained 8.40% of the
variance (R2 = 0.289, F2,171 = 7.801, P< .01). It was
found that nurses’ having had ELNEC critical care
training was a significant predictor of moral distress
frequency (β=-.215, P< .01). Nurses who had received
ELNEC critical care training had, on average, 21.5%
higher scores for moral distress frequency. In addition,
total psychological empowerment was a significant

Table 2
Correlational findings using Pearson’s r coefficient

r = 0.083
n = 258

r = 0.077
n = 257

r = -0.064
n = 253

r = 0.016
n = 256

r = -0.021
n = 258

r = 0.051
n = 256

r = 0.150a

n = 256

r = 0.032
n = 202

r = 0.119
n = 177

r = 0.144a

n = 203

r = 0.115
n = 170

r = -0.056
n = 202

r = -0.056
n = 193

r = -0.041
n = 202

r = -0.064
n = 186

r = 0.194a

n = 255

r = 0.255a

n = 254

r = 0.005
n = 250

r = 0.022
n = 253

r = -0.037
n = 255

r = 0.093
n = 253

r = 0.177a

n = 253

r = 0.042
n = 199

r = 0.079
n = 174

r = 0.059
n = 200

r = 0.062
n = 167

r = 0.001
n = 199

r = -0.159
n = 190

r = -0.115
n = 199

r = -0.136
n = 183

r = 0.090
n = 257

r = 0.110
n = 256

r = 0.036
n = 252

r = 0.217a

n = 255

r = 0.116
n = 257

r = 0.133a

n = 255

r = 0.209a

n = 256

r = 0.015
n = 201

r = 0.056
n = 175

r = 0.168a

n = 202

r = 0.062
n = 167

r = -0.103
n = 201

r = -0.177a

n = 192

r = -0.121
n = 201

r = -0.161a

n = 185

r = 0.076
n = 253

r = 0.096
n = 252

r = 0.151a

n = 249

r = 0.253a

n = 251

r = 0.149a

n = 253

r = 0.128a

n = 251

r = 0.196a

n = 251

r = 0.064
n = 196

r = 0.032
n = 171

r = 0.164a

n = 197

r = 0.057
n = 168

r = -0.161a

n = 196

r = -0.249a

n = 190

r = -0.065
n = 196

r = -0.229a

n = 183

r = 0.139a

n = 242

r = 0.165a

n = 241

r = 0.034
n = 238

r = 0.163a

n = 240

r = 0.099
n = 242

r = 0.125
n = 240

r = 0.221a

n = 241

r = 0.064
n = 189

r = 0.085
n = 166

r = 0.166a

n = 190

r = 0.095
n = 159

r = -0.111
n = 189

r = -0.213a

n = 183

r = -0.097
n = 189

r = -0.194a

n = 176

Abbreviation: ELNEC, End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium.
a Significance at α< .05.

ImpactSelf-determinationCompetence MeaningNurses’ demographics Total empowerment

Psychological empowerment

Age

Years of critical care experience

Work status

Collaboration in end-of-life care
conferences

Education

ELNEC critical care training

End-of-life care education in the
past year

Moral distress intensity

Not in patient’s best interest

Individual responsibility

Deception

Total moral distress intensity

Moral distress frequency

Not in patient’s best interest

Individual responsibility

Deception

Total moral distress frequency

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lower than the intensity, implying that the morally
distressing events that the nurses experienced were
not occurring often. Moral distress intensity was higher
in our study than in the study by Corley et al. In our
study, nurses reported the highest level of moral dis-
tress intensity in the individual responsibility domain,
with the second highest level of moral distress inten-
sity related to the items not in patient’s best interest,
although the difference in mean scores was negligible
(0.37). In previous studies,10,13,15-18 researchers reported
that the highest moral distress intensity resulted from
items not in the patient’s best interest (futile care).

As nurses’ age increased, so did moral distress
intensity. Nurses participating in end-of-life patient
care conferences reported less moral distress frequency
in being able to address issues related to the impend-
ing death of a patient honestly. Overall, the more
empowered nurses perceived themselves, the less
often they experienced moral distress.

Nurses who reported having ELNEC critical care
training experienced significantly greater levels of
moral distress intensity and frequency in items related
to “not in patient’s best interest” (participating in
care that the nurse considered inappropriate because
of futility for the patient). This may be explained by
nurses, having gained more information regarding
the correct actions to take in situations of delivering
futile care to dying patients, felt higher levels of
moral distress because they were not able to carry
out their desired actions contributing to optimal
patient care. Also, few participants (16 out of the
total number) reported ELNEC critical care training.

Several positive significant correlations were
found between psychological empowerment and the
demographics. In our study, nurses who reported par-
ticipating in end-of-life care education in the past year
reported higher levels of psychological empowerment
in all domains. This is consistent with Corbally et al,25

who conducted a qualitative study examining empow-
erment in 93 nurses and midwives. Education for
practice was an antecedent to empowerment.

We found that as age and years of critical care
experience increased, nurses reported higher levels
of empowerment related to competency. Nurses who
worked more hours per week were more empowered
related to impact. This finding is consistent with
results reported by Knol and van Linge5: in their
cross-sectional study of nurses using the PEI, they
found that registered nurses who worked more
hours per week perceived themselves as more psy-
chologically empowered.

We found that nurses who reported active col-
laboration in end-of-life patient care conferences
had higher levels of empowerment related to

self-determination and impact. This finding is con-
sistent with results of a mixed-method study using
the PEI and interviews done by Williamson14 examin-
ing home health nurses’ perception of psychological
empowerment. PEI scores were high in this study, and
interviews of participants identified collaboration as
one of the most important facets of empowerment.

Nurses who scored higher in the following:
(1) meaning (attaching greater value to their work),
(2) self-determination (feeling higher levels of
autonomy), and (3) impact (having greater influence
at work) experienced higher levels of moral distress
intensity related to deception (situations where they
felt unable to address issues related to the impend-
ing death of a patient honestly). Nurses who felt more
empowered may have been more distressed about
not being able to actualize what they perceived as
the correct actions.

However, nurses who scored higher in empow-
erment related to self-determination experienced
moral distress less frequently when participating in
situations requiring them to ignore taking actions
they felt they should take (individual responsibility).
Nurses who perceived themselves as more empow-
ered related to their impact experienced moral dis-
tress less often when dealing with situations involving
the delivery of aggressive care in cases of patient
futility (not in patient’s best interest).

Limitations
In this study, we did not differentiate between

geographical areas or types of facilities in which
nurses practiced, nor did we take into consideration
nurses’ sex or culture. The sample was taken from
subscribers to the AACN newsletter. This population
of nurses may be more apt to feeling empowered
and/or feeling greater or less levels of moral distress.
The nature of convenience sampling versus random
sampling may have limited the study’s findings in
terms of predictability and generalizability. The rel-
atively low response rate was perhaps due to the
large volume of surveys that AACN newsletter sub-
scribers are asked to complete.

Conclusion
In this study, we sought to examine the rela-

tionship between moral distress and psychological
empowerment in critical care nurses related to end-
of-life care. The results revealed a significant positive
relationship between moral distress intensity and
psychological empowerment in the surveyed popu-
lation of nurses; however, nurses who perceived
themselves as more empowered experienced moral
distress less frequently. Another pertinent finding

150 �AJCC�AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CRITICAL CARE, March 2013, Volume 22, No. 2 www.ajcconline.org

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3. Nessa C. Introduction of palliative nursing care. In: Ferrell
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4. Gutierrez K. Critical care nurses’ perceptions of and
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6. Morton P, Fontaine D. Critical Care Nursing: A Holistic
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8. American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. AACN Position
Statement on Moral Distress. http://www.aacn.org/WD
/practice/Docs/Moral_Distress.pdf. Accessed December 4,
2012.

9. Thomas K, Velthouse B. Cognitive elements of empower-
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10. Corley M. Moral distress of critical care nurses. Am J Crit
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11. Sundin-Huard D, Fahy K. Moral distress, advocacy and
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1999;5:8-13.

12. Hansen L, Goodell T, Dehaven J, et al. Nurses’ percep-
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13. Wilkinson JM. Moral distress in nursing practice: experi-
ence and effect. Nurs Forum. 1987/88;23(1):16-27.

14. Williamson K. Home health care nurses’ perceptions of
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15. Meltzer L, Huckabay L. Critical care nurses’ perceptions of
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16. Elpern E, Covert B, Kleinpell R. Moral distress of staff
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17. Mobley M, Rady M, Verheijde J, et al. The relationship
between moral distress and perception of futile care in
the critical care unit. Intensive Crit Care Nurs. 2007;23:
256-263.

18. Hamric A, Blackhall L. Nurse-physician perspectives on care
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moral distress, and ethical climate. Crit Care Med. 2007;
35(2):422-429.

19. Bandura A. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A
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20. Bandura A. Health promotion by social cognitive means.
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21. Conger JA, Kanungo R. The empowerment process: inte-
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22. Spreitzer GM. Psychological empowerment in the work-
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23. Corley M, Elswick R, Gorman M, Clor T. Development and
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24. Spreitzer GM. Social structural characteristics of psycho-
logical empowerment. Acad Manage J. 1996;39(2):483-504.

25. Corbally M, Scott P, Matthews A, Mac Gabhann L. Irish
nurses’ and midwives’ understanding and experiences of
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was that nurses who participated in end-of-life patient
care conferences experienced less moral distress fre-
quency in situations related to honestly addressing
issues dealing with patients facing impending death.

Nurses more advanced in age and nurses who
participated in ELNEC training reported more moral
distress intensity related to care that nurses considered
futile for the patient. This study indicated that the
following nursing demographics were significantly
related to higher levels of psychological empower-
ment: age, years of critical care experience, work sta-
tus, collaboration in end-of-life patient care
conferences, level of education, ELNEC training, and
end-of-life care education in the past year.

The data supported the relevance of an investiga-
tion seeking to correlate moral distress and empower-
ment related to select demographics as stipulated in the
conceptual framework. No significant correlations were
found related to AACN certification or AACN member-
ship. Future studies are recommended to address addi-
tional demographics such as sex, critical care specialty
area, and type of institution where practicing.

Despite the numerous significant positive rela-
tionships between the demographics and psychologi-
cal empowerment, participants did not experience
decreased moral distress intensity in relationship to
increased degrees of psychological empowerment.
However, the data supported that critical care nurses
who perceive themselves as more psychologically
empowered experience moral distress less frequently.

This study offers several insights into the contin-
uation of a research agenda concerning the potential
for decreasing moral distress in critical care nurses
related to end-of-life care. Further research examin-
ing empowerment as it relates to moral distress is
needed to find methods that may decrease moral
distress in critical care nurses. Further exploration of
how bioethical principles can be more effectively
incorporated into nursing education so that nurses
may be better equipped to articulate bioethical prin-
ciples related to end-of-life care as they apply them
to patient care situations in multidisciplinary patient
care conference settings is recommended. The results
of this study provide relevant data that may increase
insight into future interventional studies, potentially
aiding in the reduction of moral distress in critical
care nurses related to end-of-life care.

FINANCIAL DISCLOSURES
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CNE Test Test ID A132222: Moral Distress and Psychological Empowerment in Critical Care Nurses Caring for Adults at End of Life
Learning objectives: 1. Identify common causes of moral distress in critical care nurses who are caring for dying patients. 2. Describe the concept of psycho-
logical empowerment and the 4 cognitions it encompasses. 3. Discuss the study findings as related to the relationship between moral distress intensity and
frequency, psychological empowerment, and participant demographics.

Program evaluation
Yes No

Objective 1 was met ❑ ❑
Objective 2 was met ❑ ❑
Objective 3 was met ❑ ❑
Content was relevant to my

nursing practice ❑ ❑
My expectations were met ❑ ❑
This method of CE is effective

for this content ❑ ❑
The level of difficulty of this test was:

❑ easy ❑ medium ❑ difficult
To complete this program,

it took me hours/minutes.

Test ID: A132222 Contact hours: 1.0; pharma 0.0 Form expires: March 1, 2016. Test Answers: Mark only one box for your answer to each question.

1. Which of the following is most commonly associated with increased moral
distress in nurses providing end-of-life care to adult patients?
a. Nurses’ perceptions that the patient will not benefit from the care being provided
b. Nurses’ concerns about prolonging the patient’s suffering
c. Nurses’ perceptions that their opinions about end-of-life care are not recognized
and valued
d. Nurses’ concerns about being able to address the patient’s impending death honestly

2. Based on the study f indings, higher levels of psychological empowerment in
all domains would be most likely in which of these groups of critical care nurses?
a. Older nurses who work full time
b. Nurses who receive end-of-life care education
c. Nurses with more years of critical care experience
d. Nurses who actively collaborate in end-of-life patient care conferences

3. Which of the following is a subscale used to measure the intensity of moral
distress?
a. Meaning c. Individual responsibility
b. Self-determination d. Impact

4. Which of the following activities was associated with a low level of moral
distress intensity, but a high level of moral distress frequency?
a. Performing procedures without appropriate informed consent
b. Administering and/or withholding life-saving medications for terminally-ill patients
c. Following physician orders for unnecessary tests and treatments
d. Failing to provide patients and families with adequate education about interventions
and therapies

5. According to this study, which of the following nursing demographics were
signif icantly related to higher levels of psychological empowerment?
a. Age, years of experience, level of education, and critical care specialty area
b. Work status, AACN membership, collaboration in end-of-life patient care conferences,
and end-of-life care education in the past year
c. Age, sex, level of education, and collaboration in end-of-life patient care conferences
d. Years of experience, work status, end-of-life care education in the past year, and
critical care End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium training

6. This study sought to determine the existence of a relationship between
which of the following 2 variables?
a. End-of-life care challenges and levels of moral distress
b. End-of-life care challenges and facilitation of psychological empowerment in nurses
c. Moral distress intensity and moral distress frequency
d. Empowerment and moral distress in critical care nurses

7. Which of the following statements regarding the results of studies of moral
distress among critical care nurses is true?
a. This study confirmed previous study findings that moral distress frequency is lower
than moral distress intensity related to items not in the patient’s best interest.
b. This study confirmed previous study findings that moral distress frequency is higher
than moral distress intensity related to items not in the patient’s best interest.
c. This study confirmed previous study findings that both moral distress frequency and
moral distress intensity are typically high among critical care nurses.
d. This study contradicted previous study findings about moral distress intensity and
moral distress frequency.

8. Active participation in end-of-life care conferences is most likely to inf luence
which specif ic facet of empowerment?
a. Deception c. Individual responsibility
b. Impact d. Meaning

9. The highest level of intensity of moral distress reported in this study resulted
from which of the following circumstances?
a. Working in situations of low staff numbers, resulting in inability to provide adequate
patient care
b. Initiating life-saving actions the nurse believes will prolong death
c. Assisting a physician the nurse believes is providing incompetent care
d. Continuing to care for a hopelessly injured patient receiving mechanical ventilation
when no one will discontinue the ventilation

10. Which of the following was identif ied as the highest-ranking obstacle
preventing nurses from following the course of action believed to be right?
a. Widespread lack of psychological empowerment among nurses
b. Increased availability of advanced technology and medications for prolonging life
c. Families not understanding the term life-saving measures and its implications
d. Lack of standardized nursing education related to appropriate end-of-life care

11. What is the most common phenomenon related to end-of-life care that
causes moral distress in critical care nurses?
a. Delivering care perceived as not beneficial to the patient
b. The gap between nurses having empirical knowledge and not being able to apply
that knowledge effectively
c. Increased awareness of potential inadequacies in caring for dying patients
d. Failing to honestly address issues related to impending patient death

12. Scoring of items on the Psychological Empowerment Instrument were high-
est in which 2 subscales?
a. Impact and meaning c. Competence and self-determination
b. Meaning and competence d. Self-determination and impact

For faster processing, take
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Fee: AACN members, $0; nonmembers, $10 Passing score: 9 correct (75%) Category: CERP C Test writer: Ann Lystrup, RN, BSN, CEN, CFRN, CCRN, CSPI

9. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

8. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

7. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

6. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

5. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

4. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

3. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

2. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

1. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

10. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

12. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

11. ❑a
❑b
❑c
❑d

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Annette M. Browning
Caring for Adults at end of Life
CNE Article: Moral Distress and Psychological Empowerment in Critical Care Nurses

http://ajcc.aacnjournals.org/Published online
© 2013 American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

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