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What do nurses want?

Improving nurses’ shift patterns - where do we start?

Improving nurses’ shift patterns - where do we start?

Talia Emmanuel is a PhD candidate in the Health Workforce & Systems research group at the University of Southampton.

Talia Emmanuel is a PhD candidate in the Health Workforce & Systems research group at the University of Southampton. In this blog, she summarises some key results from her recent research paper that explored nurses’ views and values around their shift patterns and working time.

Image of Talia Emmanuel from the University of Southampton. A woman smiling
Talia Emmanuel -University of Southampton.

As a PhD student, one must be well-prepared to answer the question…“What is your research about?”. I typically answer with “I’m trying to find ways of improving shift patterns for nurses when they’re working in hospital”. Enthusiastic nods usually follow, along with a quippy reply: “Wow, that sounds important and complicated”.

Although simply put, “important and complicated” neatly summarises the nuances of this topic. We recognise the significance of improving nurses’ working conditions in the context of persistent health workforce shortages, both nationally and internationally. However, we also realise that singular cure-all solutions are non-existent – there are too many factors at play. So, where do we start?

Some of those complicating factors centre around how nurses’ working hours are organised. In hospitals, nurses often have to work in shifts that cover different periods of the 24-hour day. Previous research has identified various repercussions of working shifts (and in particular, working long shifts of 12-hours or more and night shifts): increased burnout, poor work-life balance, and risk of chronic illness and cancer on the long-term. Impacts to nurses’ performance and safety while at work have also been flagged, which pose knock-on effects on the quality of care patients ultimately receive.

Despite these risks, shift work is a necessary reality for many nurses working in hospitals. Therefore, administrators and managers are tasked with organising nurses’ shifts into rotas that balance staff wellbeing with service demands and operational costs - and this is no easy feat. Further complications come from recent increased pressure on NHS employers to offer staff more say over their working patterns as a way of improving job satisfaction and their experiences of work.

But this raises the question: What do nurses want?

More specifically, what shift patterns do they prefer, and why? While there is some existing literature on this (an excellent summary can be found here), our understanding of the factors that lead nurses to prefer certain shift patterns needs more work.

As part of my doctoral research, I was eager to do a deep-dive into this area: I know that in order to find ways to improve nurses’ shift patterns, it is crucial to ask nurses themselves about their views and values around the organisation of their working hours.

Fortunately, I had access to a rich data source around this topic: a recent survey study funded by the NIHR ARC Wessex that collected responses from nurses working across the UK and Ireland. My supervisors and I were particularly interested in nurses’ responses when asked: “If you could choose your shift patterns, what would be the most important factor in that choice?” While we expected nurses to describe many diverse factors/preferences, we were hopeful of commonalities too.

Nearly 800 nurses provided their open-ended responses to this question. We analysed all of them and developed 3 overarching themes:

Theme 1, “When I want to work”: Nurses shared many preferences for when they wanted to work, and equally, how they wanted their rest days to be arranged. Even though individual preferences differed, three general scheduling practices were also repeatedly mentioned as helpful: working less ‘harmful’ shift patterns from the start, working more consistent/predictable patterns, and having more flexibility and control over when to work.

“Not working consecutive shifts so that I am exhausted by the time I get a day off.”

“Know what I am doing each week, either set days or set nights, so I can predict what I am working…”

“Having the freedom to give myself more days to recover between weekly shifts.”

Theme 2, “Impacts to my life outside work”: Many factors emerged from nurses wanting shift patterns that enable a good work-life balance and minimise disruption to their lives outside work. Their preferences and priorities related to wanting quality recreational time with family and friends, to be able to arrange childcare easily and inexpensively, and having enough rest/recovery time to protect their own wellbeing.

“Quality time with my children and family without being permanently drained, exhausted, and sad”

“That the pattern could stay the same each week so it would be easier for childcare needs. Many nurseries like set days and when our rota is changing from week to week this can be difficult.”

“…Not mixing days and nights in a week […] this does not observe HSE best practice guidelines and messes with the body clock and sleep patterns. It should not be allowed to happen.”

Cartoon from the Simpsons with character standing in front os a screen with the words "Post-Night shifts days are not Real days off"

Theme 3, “Improving my work environment”: Some nurses mentioned job-specific factors that influenced their choices, like wanting to work the shift patterns they believed to be best for patient care, or, working the best configuration of shifts for optimal take-home pay. But other concepts, like having sufficient staffing numbers and being able to take breaks, were also stressed.  

“A shift where I feel I have accomplished the care I have wanted to give for my patients”

“To not have so much pressure on the shift, with the right amount of staff on and to take my break when needed”.

When thinking back to the question “What shift patterns do nurses prefer, and why?”, these themes provide several helpful clues. They also highlight that while there is variation in nurses’ specific shift preferences, there are also more general scheduling practices that also support their priorities. For my research, this finding is particularly striking, as it moves away from the oft-assumption that there are “countless individual preferences that are difficult to accommodate” and toward the idea that there are more universal preferences too. Moreover, when these universal preferences are used during the scheduling process, nurses’ shift patterns can be improved overall.

That sounds like a good starting point!




Read our full analysis of nurses’ survey responses in the open-access research paper here

Follow Talia: Twitter/X | ResearchGate

Follow the UoS Health Workforce & Systems team: Twitter/X | UoS website

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