Comment

Healthcare workers are entitled to breaks – and nurses are no exception

Staff shortages shouldn’t equal missed breaks. Know your rights and how to access support
Nurses must take a break

Staff shortages shouldnt equal missed breaks. Know your rights and how to access support

The idea that nursing staff shouldnt take a break if a patient needs their attention is a perception that won't go away.

It implies that a nurse has a superhuman bladder and wont need the toilet during a 12-hour shift. That nursing staff are more camel than human and wont need a drink of water even when caring for patients on the warmest day of the year.

And the staffing challenges that seem inevitable as services respond to COVID-19 will surely only pile on the pressure individuals feel to put off their break for a bit longer and a bit longer.

Missing breaks would rightly not be allowed in other safety-critical sectors, such as air traffic control or HGV driving

More than 8,000 members responded

Staff shortages shouldn’t equal missed breaks. Know your rights and how to access support


Picture: iStock

The idea that nursing staff shouldn’t take a break if a patient needs their attention is a perception that won't go away.

It implies that a nurse has a superhuman bladder and won’t need the toilet during a 12-hour shift. That nursing staff are more camel than human and won’t need a drink of water even when caring for patients on the warmest day of the year.

And the staffing challenges that seem inevitable as services respond to COVID-19 will surely only pile on the pressure individuals feel to put off their break for a bit longer… and a bit longer.

‘Missing breaks would rightly not be allowed in other safety-critical sectors, such as air traffic control or HGV driving’

More than 8,000 members responded to the RCN’s latest employment survey, and many complained about the inability to take paid or unpaid breaks.

One band 5 staff nurse in an NHS hospital said they often leave work feeling hungry and have to stay late to find something quick to eat and drink to be able to drive home safely.

Shortage of nursing staff contributes to a shortage of breaks

As caring professionals, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that breaks must be foregone if there aren’t enough staff.

Staff shortages inside and outside the NHS are well-documented, as is the additional unpaid overtime nurses contribute to compensate for rota gaps.

The RCN understands that the shortage in nursing staff contributes to breaks not being taken. Missing breaks has become normalised for staff and the college is campaigning to address this issue.

At a time of low morale and high levels of work-related stress and intent to leave the profession, improving the working conditions for nurses is essential if we are to retain the workforce we have and deliver quality care to patients.

Fatigue can cause errors, which means breaks are essential for safety

Breaks aren’t a luxury, they are a necessity. At a time of concern about how staff will cope with the demands posed by coronavirus, it's essential to remember that. Fatigue-related errors and accidents are a risk for shift workers, and missing breaks would rightly not be allowed in other safety-critical sectors, such as air traffic control or HGV driving. 

As patient demand grows, nurses work increasingly intense shifts; it’s not uncommon to work more than 12 hours in one shift. Frequent shorter breaks are essential for reducing fatigue and improving productivity.

Nursing staff who work in the community and drive between patients must have a break if they’re to get behind the wheel.

‘A culture of skipped breaks threatens patient and staff safety, so don’t feel guilty about taking breaks and encourage others to adopt the same attitude’

Employers need to comply with the requirements of the Working Time Regulations 1998, and ensure that staff who work more than six hours a day have a minimum 20-minute uninterrupted break away from their immediate workstation.

The regulations recognise that in certain occupations, such as healthcare, it may not always be possible to take breaks in line with this requirement, for example in emergencies. In such cases, staff should have compensatory rest.

Where staff are unable to leave the site and are required to be ‘on call’ for colleagues and maintain oversight of care – if there is one registered nurse on duty in a residential home, for example – there should be arrangements in place to allow a break away from residents.

How to ensure you get the breaks you’re entitled to

A culture of skipped breaks threatens patient and staff safety, so don’t feel guilty about taking your rest breaks and encourage others to adopt the same attitude.

If missed breaks are becoming a pattern, alert your line manager. Keep a tally and complete an incident form that covers a stretch of shifts.

If you need to make the case to your employer that staff breaks are key for safe and effective patient care, the RCN’s Rest, Rehydrate, Refuel guide is an essential resource.

RCN safety representatives are trained to negotiate and represent the health and safety interests of RCN members at work. They will be familiar with the guide and can also carry out safety inspections and ensure employers are complying with the law on rest breaks at work.

Further help and advice can be found on the RCN website or by contacting RCN Direct on 03457726100.


Kim Sunley is RCN national officer for health and safety

Sign up to continue reading for FREE

OR

Subscribe for unlimited access

Enjoy 1 month's access for £1 and get:

  • Full access to nursing standard.com and the Nursing Standard app
  • Monthly digital edition
  • RCNi Portfolio and interactive CPD quizzes
  • RCNi Learning with 200+ evidence-based modules
  • 10 articles a month from any other RCNi journal

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this?

Jobs