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The nursing roster: it's all about me!


Ask any nurse about their feelings regarding the nursing roster, off-duty or schedule to work and many would think twice, and say it’s a necessary part of working within the healthcare system.

However, is it as simple as all that? I am a nurse. Therefore, I know that part of my job is to work whatever roster my workplace has in place. I admit that the thought of dictating my hours of work or shifts patterns is very tempting, but unless you are working casual, this is almost impossible. However, as a full-time member of staff I have to be considerate of other colleagues and the needs of the workplace. The answer is an ongoing dilemma for me, which in fact started as soon as I commenced work on my first job post-qualification.

As a newly graduated nurse, I approached the nursing roster with excitement - not because I was thinking of the implications of a fixed roster, but more from a position of a very junior nurse, looking forward to just being a nurse - and yes, caring for my own set of patients.

I did not take any notice of the tired faces of my colleagues - who at that time I felt were older, more experienced and on the whole, appeared to have their lives in balance. I never questioned how they felt about their shift patterns and certainly did not think about their lives outside work. On reflection, why would I? These older nurses were so far beyond my reach at the time.

My first experience of the restrictions of working a roster happened perhaps a year after qualification. I had a pretty hectic social life and had to fit in a internal rotation of shifts as well. I had not really noticed at that time that I seemed to be doing more nights than everyone else and that I was doing a lot of evenings at the weekend. I did not complain and did my best to fit into the ward life. I did not notice my colleagues having micro sleeps over their nursing notes, or maybe taking a sick day every other weekend, as I just filled in. It did not bother me until my request to have a particular weekend off was denied in favour of granting it to another nurse who was senior to me. It was then that I began to notice how the older nurses were manipulating their roster to fit in with their lifestyle due to the fact that it was impossible for them to work all the hours and shifts required and remain healthy physically and mentally.

Sixteen years after qualification, I am the senior nurse within my unit. I am on a fixed roster but with some flexibility to swap shifts, so I can travel, do sports and attend dinner parties, yet I look in the mirror and see the same worn-out nurse’s face that I had seen as a junior nurse on my more senior colleagues. Today, I realise how stressful it is trying to work within a roster for everyone, not just me. As a younger nurse I was able to manage work and my social life with little impact on my physical or mental wellbeing. I now realise that as nurses get older the roster is almost like a bargaining tool - a rite of passage. I have put my time in therefore I am entitled to have more choice. It is not just about work but also my life outside - my family and friends; these are the things which keep me sane and able to care for my patients on a daily basis.

As I encounter younger nurses within the workplace, they cannot see the reflection of themselves in years to come and I do not try to explain myself to them. Afterall, my roster is all about me. Or is it?

Alison O’Sullivan is


Readers' comments (10)

  • I have been qualified for 26 years and I do the off duty on my ward. Far from manipulating it, and using my many years of experience to get away with dumping the bulk of the nights and weekends on younger nurses, I actually end up doing more of them than they do. Why? because of lots of peoples childcare requirements, and because I don't have children myself.
    I do have an active life outside of work too, and work hard to achieve a good work/life balance. There seems to be a lot of selfishness amongst nurses when it comes to the roster, and people think they should always have what they want, without considering the impact on their colleagues.

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  • regardless of age those of us working 100% had no children and were in the older age group and those who did worked part time and always had preference as they were able to dictate which days of the week they were unable to work and we had to cover all the rest. we were told by our employers the importance of work/life balance and being a better nurse for it. we were encouraged to attend classes outside work but these had to be cancelled so often it wasn't worth it and a considerable waste of money and time catching up on material from missed classes.

    we had a request book and even though I only requested rarely when i had something special there was usually an unpleasant row over it so it was not worth requesting often.

    our nurse in charge was so hopeless at the off duty (although she was not affected by it as she worked nine to five in an office) that two nurses on the ward volunteered to do it together which made matters even worse. especially when they would disappear for a whole morning or afternoon to do it when the ward was at its most hectic and with the response to those left on the ward that it was a question of priorities and being able to organise your work, don't you know, even if you were left on the ward alone and had the doctors' round and perhaps the odd emergency! anything said, no matter how diplomatically ended up in a row and the nurses working 100% always the losers!

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  • I have worked for nine years in my current unit and I have ended up doing more than my fair share of nights and weekends as I do not have children.
    I feel that the expectation is that because I have no kids, I therefore have nothing else to do but be in work at the weekend or overnight as I don't have to worry about child minding. We have many staff that fully dictate their hours, and claim not to be free at weekends, but seem to available for bank shifts....

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  • Anonymous | 19-Jan-2012 9:53 pm
    Anonymous | 15-Jan-2012 11:36 am

    sadly that is exactly the attitude. kids have absolute priority with no discussion and if you do not understand that you can be made to feel guilty in a very aggressive manner.

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  • When I do the rota, its usually me who has the rubbish shifts!

    We try to ensure a balance of late/early in numbers and skill mix etc but frankly, allowing staff to have 5 preference requests per rota, annual leave, study leave, family friendly/contractual agreements not to mention days off - its like juggling feral cats.

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  • what happened to software for off-duty planning? it looked, at least in theory, that there was the potential for the development of some quite sophisticated models. did it not work? perhaps it was unable to take all the individual needs into account?
    judging by the comments here it is not being used.

    it would be interesting to hear of any experiences of it.

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  • I worked on a ward where you self rostered. It worked extremely well. Some staff only wanted to do nights, so they did them, (they had to undertake at least 2 weeks of day duty in the year). Some girls only did earlies, some only wanted to do lates. There were those of us inbetween who didnt really care what we did. Everybody knew if anyone was sick that the off duty would have to be changed,. We only tended to do nights once every 3/4 months. It was a very happy ward, people were happy to swap shifts if needed. It was a very productive ward. As long as the ward was covered day and night the Sister would allow you to do whatever shift you wanted. Then she retired, a new sister came and we all went on internal rotation. The happy productive ward came to an end!

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  • far more work should be done on how to create happy productive wards where the staff get along, can do their work in a satisfied and relaxed manner and the patients, central to their care, and the purpose of the ward, have confidence in the high quality care they are receiving instead of being made to feel that that they might be in the way and it is being delivered in a begrudging manner.

    it should go without saying that respect for staff leads to greater respect for everybody else they come into contact with and that includes respecting their time and their needs for time off.

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  • this is why i do opd,for years i did bank/agency work as i couldnt cope with internal rotation.for me nights are terrible as i could not sleep during the day,i was lucky if i slept for four i work monday to friday only.friday being a half day.i get to have a life outside work.being childfree i can go to motorbike rallies with my husband and freinds.or fitness classes .whatever i want to is selfish expecting nurses with no kids to do constant weekends or nights.personally so called family friendly nursing doesnt exist.for thoses nurses who are childfree.

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  • Dear Nursing Times Readers
    keeping the off-duty fair might help some and having off-duty solutions or rota's that avoid unnecessary late shifts or weekend working. Getting the nurse staffing requirements right based on skills ... the free bitworks offduty wizard helps us make it fair, it has a neat mix of manual (for the requests) and then hit the auto button to produce the five best offduty solutions.

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