Revealed – the appalling pressures that threaten nurses’ health every day

EXCLUSIVE Nurses open up about dehydration, lack of breaks, understaffing and more

Nurses open up to Nursing Standard about hunger and dehydration, lack of breaks, understaffing and more



Scant opportunity to eat, drink and take breaks during shifts is leaving nurses depressed, suicidal and using alcohol to self-medicate, a Nursing Standard survey has found.

Early responses to our ongoing survey reveal a nursing workforce that is quite simply, exhausted.

More than half the workforce is regularly – once or twice a week – going through shifts without their basic human needs being met, our findings suggest.

Whole shifts without breaks – ever

The survey, running since the end of April, has prompted 1,905 nurses to respond so far. It has found:

  • 75% of respondents never have time for a break during a shift.
  • 59% go through a whole shift without being able to drink water.
  • 57% have no access to healthy or nutritious food at their workplace.

Hundreds of comments already posted are building a picture of the woeful conditions nurses face.

They cite lack of breaks, excessive workload, hunger and dehydration, time pressures, understaffing, length of shifts, poor work-life balance, bad managers and low morale as the biggest threats to their well-being.

‘If I admit I’m struggling I won’t get support’

One nurse described having a ‘total meltdown, self-harming and suicidal thoughts’ because of work pressures, and many others said they were receiving treatment for depression or using alcohol to cope.

‘I haven't been coping,’ wrote one nurse. ‘But I can’t afford to go off sick or be honest with how much I'm struggling because I don't believe I'll actually get support.’

Picture: iStock

Another nurse described receiving treatment for kidney stones brought on by dehydration.

Others talk about how difficult it can be to get a nutritious meal or snack, either because there is not enough time to walk to a café or canteen, or because hospital shops and vending machines do not provide healthy or cost-effective options.

One nurse said: ‘The canteen is only open at certain times. Often if breaks are running behind – which they often do – healthy eating is not an option and the shop becomes the source of snacking on junk food for sustenance. Our department has no fridge or staff room on the ward to bring in your own lunch.’

Another said: ‘I can’t leave the ward to go to the canteen due to a lack of staff.’

Unmanageable workload

A further respondent said: ‘The workload is unmanageable most days. They take 30 minutes break off of us every day, but we never get chance to have that break.’

RCN congress is expected to debate the topic of hydration at its annual congress, starting this weekend. 

RCN senior employment relations adviser Kim Sunley said the findings made ‘very hard reading’.

‘These comments show the very personal impact that extremely pressurised working environments and lack of management support can have on nursing staff,’ she said.

‘These are shocking findings and a very worrying snapshot of what is going on out there in the nursing workforce.’

Ms Sunley said that patient safety was at stake, as well as nurses’ own health, pointing out that being dehydrated can affect cognitive function.

Bad for patients as well as nurses

‘It is sad that not taking breaks seems to now have become “the norm”.

‘Obviously in a crisis or emergency, you wouldn’t go on your break, but when it becomes the norm that you don’t, that is unsustainable and leads to sick, exhausted and worn-out nurses.’

Ms Sunley added that if employers were not looking after the basic needs of their nursing workforce, it did bode well for how they look after patients.

‘We would urge nursing staff who are struggling to seek help at the earliest opportunity, this could be by talking to a trusted colleague, GP or self-referral to occupational health or counselling services.

‘RCN members can also contact RCN’s counselling service.’

Take part in the Nursing Standard well-being survey here 

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