The upcoming holiday season has everyone at my work in a good mood. Working in outpatient medicine, the office is closed on major holidays. Employees get some extra time for celebrating and relaxing with family. Who doesn’t get excited about that? I’m definitely looking forward to having time off, but I’m a little sad about the fact that the rest of my family will be celebrating the holiday in Michigan while I’m here in Colorado. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll find something exciting to do on my day off, but not being with family is a huge bummer in my book.
I hope this segues well into my topic for this week’s blog: community. With the holidays coming around, I am reminded of how important it is to have people in my life who truly care about me. The people that I want to most spend a holiday with are also those whom I call over the phone on a regular basis, eat a meal with every week, or spend time writing letters to. The people that I “do life with” are what make my life worth doing, so to speak. My job as a nurse in an outpatient setting makes it easier to connect with the people who are important to me since I work similar hours to many other professionals. I function on a schedule that is similar to everyone else’s, and this makes it somewhat easier for me to function and empathize with others in the working population. I know that I will be home for dinner and have weekends/major holidays off. I can attend events or join groups that meet at the same time every week because I have a fairly predictable, sustainable routine with my job.
The Social Aspect a Rotating Schedule Can Have on a Hard-Working Nurse
In contrast, I want to show you a little of what one of my best friends Julia’s schedule looks like. Julia is a medical-surgical nurse at an inpatient hospital downtown. She was accepted into a new graduate nurse residency program, and she has been there for almost a year now. Her schedule is “rotating,” meaning that she works an equal amount of days and nights per month. For example, one week she may work the day shift on Monday and the night shift on Wednesday and Thursday. The following week, she may work night shift on Tuesday and day shift over the weekend. It is an unpredictable schedule that offers no regularity week-to-week nor month-to-month.
On the most basic level, a schedule like Julia’s takes its toll physically. In one of my previous blogs, I wrote about the effects of the night shift on nurses, and research shows that the night shift causes upset of the body’s natural circadian rhythm negatively affects weight, appetite, metabolism, and sleep ability. It’s hard for a body to constantly be flip-flopping its “active hours,” never knowing exactly when it’s time to rest or when it’s time to be awake. But what I want to really explore more today is the social aspect of a schedule like Julia’s: it’s understandably difficult for an unmarried, young nurse to foster community with such an erratic, unpredictable work schedule.
Most everyone is on the Monday-Friday, 8:00 am-5:00 pm schedule. A typical inpatient nurse like Julia works 12-hour shifts, 7:00 am-7:00 pm or 7:00 pm-7:00 am. When Julia works day shift, she is up well before the general population so that she can park in the parking ramp, walk to her unit, and punch in before 7:00 am. On those mornings, her interaction with people outside of work is limited to the barista at Starbucks, if she has time for a quick drive-thru stop. After work, she arrives back home with little more energy than to take a shower and eat a snack before heading to bed. If Julia is working the night shift, she will often try to nap before heading to work around 5:30 pm. She typically returns from her night shift around 8:30 am, after which she tucks into bed in an attempt to catch up on the lost sleep from the night before. When it comes to working, either she’s gone all day, gone all night, or recovery-sleeping from a shift. Her opportunities to meet friends of similar age or participate in group activities like pickup volleyball are minimal.
But what about her days off, you ask? She only works three 12-hour shifts a week, after all. She has four full days off! Surely she could find community on those days. Of course, your argument is seemingly valid. However, the unpredictability of her days off throws a wrench in the plan. She can’t plan on always being at the Tuesday night practice for a volleyball team, and she can’t plan on always going to church on a Sunday. It’s virtually impossible to make a true commitment to anything, and the commitment component is huge when considering how to foster deep and lasting friendship and camaraderie.
It’s a puzzle: it really is.
And this isn’t just Julia’s problem: it’s something that many young nurses struggle with as they head into their professional career. They enter the hospital setting at the bottom of the totem pole, unable to enforce their schedule preferences when up against most experienced, senior nurses on the floor. Thus, they are at the whim of the schedulers to work the shifts that they are given. More often than not, this is the night shift, the weekend shift, the holiday shift or the random two-night/one-day shift pattern per week. It is isolating for young nurses to have to work during the times that others are building relationships or pursuing hobbies with other like-minded people. Friendships and community are sacrificed for career’s sake, and it’s socially unhealthy for young nurses.
I’m sorry: here’s another blog about a really big problem, and I have no answers. I just want to reiterate that my goal with this isn’t to have all the answers (I also think that it would be unrealistic and naive for me to think I have the answers). Hopefully, though, it gives you as readers a little insight into the social difficulties of being a nurse. Perhaps it might even cause you to give a little thanks to the nurses who may be working during the coming holidays, a social sacrifice that comes with the job. I think I might just write a note of thanks to Julia for working this week to remind her that she has friends that care for her every day of the week, not just holidays.