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