Nurses Working During the Holidays: Because Someone Has to be There with the Patients

Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN - 03/13/19

Nurses usually become nurses to help others and to make a difference for them. It’s an entirely selfless act, and nursing is never about earning accolades for doing the best for people who are not at their best. Most of the time the nurse doesn’t see a situation through to resolution, and nurses find they have to make their own rewards.

The holidays are one big example of selflessness and sacrifice. Sick people don’t suddenly get well so that everyone can be with their families and friends for the special occasions. Major holidays can be some of the hardest, but even smaller ones such as birthdays and anniversaries are not easily postponed or moved; especially when they involve children.

Nursing in most realms is 24/7. That includes hospitals, home health care and hospice. Clinics and doctor’s offices can be Mon-Fri with 8 to 10-hour days and only sometimes on-call or weekends, but usually those are off days along with holidays. The vast majority of nurses work in hospitals or for home health or hospice.

Holidays are usually divided up early in the year and everyone is expected to take one major and one minor holiday. There are many ways of choosing either letting people volunteer or drawing names or the manager makes assignments based on merit, length of service or some other rating. To be honest, there is just no fair or reasonable way to do it and it just has to be done. Some nurses will readily volunteer if it’s not their holiday such as Christmas, or perhaps Thanksgiving is no big deal to them.

Sometimes a nurse may be willing to work a couple of major holidays in order to be off for the Fourth of July and her birthday which are more meaningful to him or her. There’s an infinite number of possibilities. And then there can be changes throughout the year when people quit, or new hires join the staff. Situations may change and people are in need of or willing to trade. Make sure to follow the rules of your facility or office/unit in making trades; sometimes it’s up to a manger to approve first, and sometimes it’s just downright forbidden.

The point is healthcare is always going to be 24/7 and someone is going to have to be there with the patients. Sometimes the census drops because people have been discharged and the shift is slow (never use the word quiet), so you can enjoy an easier shift and have time to spread some joy and fun. Other times, the holidays can be eventful or lonely times and people get admitted right and left. Many a nurse has spent significant time hand-holding or hugging patients whose family or friends are too busy or too far away to come visit or to stay long.

Covering holidays and even weekends or on-call is not a topic that seems to be discussed adequately in nursing school and unsuspecting new nurse grads are often shocked to find themselves on the major holiday staffing list for more than one major holiday until they “pay their dues” and move up the list. Helping to prepare friends and family for the realities of a nurse’s schedule and life-work imbalances is not an easy task. Changing the times or dates of celebrations is complicated and sometimes the nurse just has to be left out of the celebration. The hardest times are when there are children involved or an aging relative who might not make it to next year.

Remember though that each co-worker has their own situation and back story which they may or may not share. Just because someone is single or doesn’t have children is not cause to resent them being off on a holiday that the single mom with children has to work. Everyone will have their turn. The holidays are stressful and guilt-ridden enough. Enjoy the time you do have with loved ones and try to plan in advance to change things up and make a nice day of it. Have someone take plenty of photos and videos, and you could even make a short video to share with family to send your love and wishes. Most of all don’t make the patients feel guilty that you are working. This is the profession you chose. Put on a smile and bring cheer to the job.