Career advice

How to cope with staff shortages

Pressure resulting from understaffing can leave you feeling angry and defeated, but there are strategies to boost your resilience.

Pressure resulting from understaffing can leave you feeling angry and defeated, but there are strategies to boost your resilience


Dealing with inadequate resources every shift is exhausting. Picture: iStock

More than half of NHS trust leaders in England are worried that they do not have the staff numbers or the skill mix they need to continue delivering high quality care, according to a recent survey by NHS Providers. This will not have come as a surprise to nurses on the front line.

In general, nurses are a stoic bunch, but they care deeply about the people they look after, and this makes coping with unsafe staffing resources difficult. When you know that going the extra mile and giving your best will not be enough, it is hard not to feel defeated. So what can you do?

Change what you can

Dealing with inadequate resources every time you are on shift is exhausting, and it can be easy to let anger and resentment overcome you. If you join forces with others to direct your energy wisely, for example by supporting local or national campaigns for improved funding for the NHS and fair pay for nurses, it may help you feel more empowered.

There are also strategies that can help you cope on a day-to-day basis.

Tips for coping with the pressure

  • Voice your concerns appropriately: You have a duty to practice effectively and preserve safety, so you must report when staffing levels prevent you from doing this. In reality, you may frequently have to get by, so for your own accountability make sure you fully document your concerns. Try to remove emotion and stick to the facts.
  • Work as a team: When numbers are stretched to breaking point, it is vital that the nursing team communicates well and pulls together. This will be challenging as stress levels will naturally be high, but try not to take it out on your colleagues. Accept that as a unit there may be things that you simply cannot do, so schedule in frequent points throughout the day when you can quickly come together to go over priorities and assess who needs help.
  • Empower patients and families: Sometimes nurses do things that patients or their relatives are capable of doing. Encourage your patients to see what they can do for themselves. 
  • Look after yourself: It is impossible to work effectively and make decisions if you are hungry or dehydrated, so take your breaks and encourage colleagues to do the same. Be proactive about managing stress levels.
  • Enjoy your time off duty: Remember to have fun. Spending time with friends, family or engaged in hobbies can help to put things in perspective.
  • Recognise your tipping point: Everyone copes with pressure and stress differently, so try not to compare yourself to others. If you find that you are struggling to switch off or sleep, then seek support.

Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance writer and life/health coach

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