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When Nurses Have to Work on Christmas Day

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By Frieda Paton, M.Cur, RN

Your heart is in your boots when you leave the family and head to work on Christmas morning and you might even feel a bit angry and resentful. Why is this day so different from any other day? Most of us have family traditions and rituals around Christmas that have been a part of our lives since the first Christmas we can remember and, without even thinking about it, we pass them on to our children. Traditions and rituals are deeply embedded in our psychological make-up and are an important part of the culture of families, communities, and society as a whole. They serve to transmit cultural norms, values, and beliefs and also strengthen the sense of belonging and togetherness in a social group.

Although in our minds we might blame the way we feel about working on Christmas on the fact that everybody else is off and having fun, the strong emotions we feel are mostly seated in not being part of the rituals and traditions that have become part of us. These feelings can be overcome by creating new traditions or transferring some of the established traditions to the new situation. The choice is yours whether you are going to miserable and resentful or whether you are going to help create a celebratory atmosphere, firstly for your family, and secondly for your co-workers and patients who are in the same boat.

This requires some creative thinking as well as planning ahead and the following are a few tips to help you cope when working on Christmas day.

1. Prepare the Children and Your Family in Advance

Explain to your loved ones beforehand that you have to work and let them also come up with ideas for the changed plans. Share with them that Christmas is a time of giving and because people also become ill over Christmas, you will be giving of yourself. At the same time, by sacrificing having you around because of those in need, they will also be part of the giving.

Christmas nursing quote

If you normally celebrate Christmas with members of your extended family, also discuss with them well in advance the fact that you will be working the holiday shift so you can rearrange plans together.

2. Move Family Celebrations to a Different Time

This will obviously depend on the shift you are working. You can move the celebration and opening of gifts to Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning – Santa can arrive while you are enjoying a traditional Christmas meal in the dining room. The kids will certainly be excited to get their presents long before their friends do! You can keep the delving into the Christmas stocking for the morning, when you are already at work, and leave a very special message for each family member.

If you usually have Christmas dinner with your parents and members of your extended family you can ask whether it can be moved to the evening when you are off duty, or even to the next day. The togetherness is what really counts, rather than a specific day. A special outing can be planned for the children to keep them busy and happy during Christmas day.

3. Decorate the Unit for Christmas

Bring a festive atmosphere into the unit by putting up decorations (remember to keep safety regulations in mind) in the nurse’s station, hallways and even in the patient’s rooms. They need not be expensive – there are many ideas of things to make from upcycled materials. Patients who are able can even be asked to help make the decorations beforehand.

Nursing Christmas Tree 2

Don’t forget to also decorate yourself in the spirit of Christmas – maybe with special scrubs, a pin or a Christmas hat.

4. Share Christmas Gifts With Your Work “Family”

Create some fun by also sharing gifts at work. Have a “Secret Santa”, where everyone’s names are written on a slip of paper and put in a hat from which each person draws the name of the person that they will buy a present for. You can also just ask everyone to bring a unisex gift to a certain value. Arrange for a special time to share and open the gifts for example, during handover at the start of the shift or during a tea or lunch break.

You can also plan amongst the staff for simple, inexpensive gifts for other members of the health team – doctors, physiotherapists, phlebotomists, and anyone else who is also working on the holiday. Imagine their surprise and the smile you will put on their faces!

5. Christmas Eats

We all associate Christmas with special treats and sharing good food and you don’t need to miss out on this while at work on the day. Arrange for a party with a pot-luck meal where everyone can contribute a pre-arranged special dish. Create a festive look and feel with traditional table decorations, Christmas crackers, and hats.

What if the unit is too busy and short-staffed and there won’t be a chance to sit down together for a meal? Everyone can bring a plate of pop-in-the-mouth-while-on-run treats that can be displayed festively in the nurses’ station. This can range from blocks of cooked turkey stuffing as well as other cold meats, sliced vegetables with a dip, to chunks of Christmas cake or pudding, biscuits, chocolates and other sweets. These eats can also be shared with anyone who comes into the nurses’ station – it is Christmas, after all.

6. Making the day Special for Patients

Being confined to a hospital bed for Christmas, and most likely for the rest of the festive season, probably makes it even more gloomy for your patients than for you who will be going home to your loved ones at the end of your shift.

By decorating the unit and wearing something in the spirit of the season you will be bringing some the festive cheer to your patients. Consider other ways as well through which you can make the holiday season better for them. Depending on the condition of the patient, you can relax visiting hours on the day so that patients and their families can spend more time together. Make a point of spending a bit of extra time with those patients who don’t have any visitors and even club together to get a surprise gift for these patients. 

Working together as a team, and in their usual spirit of caring, nurses who are working on Christmas day can uphold the traditions and spread the joy of the season for their patients, other members of the health team and each other.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

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