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Tips From Nurses on Working Holiday Shifts

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated November 24, 2022
    Working holiday shifts can be challenging. Use these simple strategies to find greater peace and joy during the holiday season.
    • The holiday season can be challenging and stressful for nurses who often do not get extra time off to celebrate with friends and family.
    • It is crucial to pay close attention to your mental, emotional, and physical health during the holidays.
    • Consider creating new holiday traditions at work and home. Be mindful of your dietary choices, know when to ask for help, and don’t neglect self-care.

    The holiday season can add extra stress to a nurse’s life. December is typically a time for family and tradition. Although not everyone observes a holiday in December, it’s also a time when hospitals often suspend vacations and limit time off in anticipation of an influx of patients from flu and pneumonia.

    In the northern hemisphere, December’s days are shorter, colder, and darker than the sunny summer months. Holiday celebrations can help take the edge off the harsh change in weather conditions. Consider these tips from nurses to help navigate the season’s pressures and thrive during holiday shifts .

    1. Create Holiday Traditions at Work and Home

    Martha Paulson, MSN, RN, CEPN, is an experienced nurse leader who has worked for 20 years throughout the largest healthcare system in Denver, Colorado. She understands the importance of mental health, especially around the holidays. Paulson recommends that nurses carve out time to celebrate with their friends and family, even if it’s not on the actual day.

    “Put a lot of your festive joy and effort into the holiday potlucks to celebrate with your teammates if you’re away from family,” she says.

    There are several ways of creating your own holiday traditions as a busy nurse at work and home, such as a holiday potluck during your shift. Nurses on a unit often become a close-knit team. Think about celebrating with a Secret Santa, ordering a special meal for the team, or dressing up during the shift.

    The same holds true with creating holiday traditions with your family at home. Your holiday celebrations can happen on a different day, complete with gifts, meals, and religious observations that you would normally do on the actual holiday. Ultimately, the intent is to celebrate with family and friends.

    2. Share Traditions With Your Patients

    As challenging as it may be for you to work the holiday shift, it is hard on patients to be in the hospital during the holidays too. Shelly Patularu is an international board-certified lactation consultant who recognizes the unique opportunity nurses have to help patients celebrate the holidays.

    “Whenever working the holidays I would talk with patients about what their celebrations looked like and listen to their traditions, memories, and stories,” she says. “Just simply being present and listening can help your patients to process their complicated feelings and emotions around the holidays.”

    Some patients may also enjoy hearing your stories about past holiday seasons and traditions that you enjoy. The idea is to honor your patients and take greater care of their mental and emotional health during this time.

    3. Decorate

    Decorating can be a fun and easy way to get in the holiday spirit. Inexpensive options do not have to break the bank and can still lift everyone’s spirits. Remember to get permission from management before decorating the unit or patients’ rooms.

    You can collaborate with the pediatric unit, where children could make the decorations for the adult’s rooms. Note that there are mandatory rules about using combustible materials and heat. It’s also important not to block any entrances and exits with lights, trees, or decorations. If you’re short on ideas, Pinterest is one place to look for ways to dress up a hospital unit on a budget.

    4. Be Mindful of Dietary Choices

    The holiday season is often a time when nurses and patients’ families bring in extra food and goodies for the staff. Many times these treats are loaded with sugar and carbohydrates.

    These may taste good going down, but a lot of sugar can trigger mood swings and fatigue when insulin is quickly released and your blood sugar drops. Instead, be mindful of the choices you make both at home and at work to keep your spirits lifted and to stay healthy.

    5. Know When to Ask for Help

    The holiday season is also a time when many people try to take on more than they should. It’s okay to ask for help. This can protect your mental and emotional health so you come out of the holiday season without additional stress.

    Ask your family for more help with housekeeping or cooking. You might find it helpful to hire someone to clean the house several times from November through January. Or you may find it helpful to use a grocery delivery service for a short time. You can figure out what help will work best for your situation.

    6. Do Not Neglect Self-Care

    In the hustle and bustle of working, family obligations, and the added stress of holiday preparations, you may be tempted to overlook your own nursing self-care. This would be a mistake. Taking care of your mental, physical, and emotional health is crucial to developing resilience and enjoying the holiday season despite the extra stress.

    Paulson spent many years as a clinical nurse specialist, manager, and director. She is well aware of the simple ways that you can protect yourself.

    “Although these are very simple pieces of advice, they make a huge difference: exercise, eat well, and sleep well. Be kind to yourself, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself during the holidays. Also, try to enjoy the holidays instead of leaning into the stress that it brings,” she advises.

    7. Celebrate With Family

    It can be easy to get overwhelmed during the holiday season. However, your celebrations with friends and family are what make the season special and important.

    If you’re working on the holiday, celebrate on another day and connect with your family during your shift. Consider a short video chat or phone call with family and friends.

    8. Spread Joy During Holiday Shifts

    Spreading joy to others can keep you from being down about working during the holiday. Consider singing carols outside patients’ rooms or handing out cards. MetroHealth takes this one step further and gives employees a yearly grant for patient projects or the community.

    9. Switch Shifts

    When possible, try to switch shifts. Some institutions do not allow this around the holidays, so check with management. You may find a colleague who will switch with you if you’re proactive. Offer to work another holiday for them that isn’t as important to you. For example, switching Christmas Eve for New Year’s Eve.

    10. Know Your Limits

    You must recognize your own mental and physical limits. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with holiday events and plans outside work, without considering how you’ll also need to put in a 10- or 12-hour shift.

    Setting boundaries may be new to you, but it’s a skill well worth learning. Boundaries are guidelines that should set permissible limits for others in a relationship. For example, you may need to say no to a friend’s party if you need time to rest, or set limits on gift-giving so you don’t stretch your financial limits.

    Remember you are not responsible for how others feel. You can be empathetic and understanding without letting their reaction dictate your feelings.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Martha Paulson, MSN, RN, CEPN

    Martha Paulson, MSN, RN, CEPN

    Martha Paulson is an experienced nurse leader with extensive clinical experience in critical care, cardiovascular, and acute care. She worked for 20 years throughout the largest healthcare systems in Denver, Colorado, as a clinical nurse, manager, and director. Paulson is now a clinical manager at Advantis Medical Staffing, coaching and helping new clinicians transition into travel nursing and advance their careers. Her strengths include nursing program strategy and design, crisis management, team development, mentorship, and raising the bar on service excellence.

    Portrait of Shelly Patularu, BScN, RN, IBCLC

    Shelly Patularu, BScN, RN, IBCLC

    After the birth of her twins and realizing the huge lack of reliable chestfeeding information for twin moms, Patularu became an IBCLC. Patularu has since created an online twin chestfeeding course, runs a website and Instagram account dedicated to helping twin moms and guardians, and has a small private lactation consultant practice that specializes in twin chestfeeding. You can find Patularu at www.twinmomguide.com or on Instagram @twinmomguide.