No time for a break: nurses reveal what short-staffing is doing to their well-being

Whole shifts without a sip of water show what a national nurse shortage looks like close-up

Picture: iStock

Tell someone outside the NHS that many nurses go through an entire shift without even a sip of water and they will probably look at you in disbelief.

Then try explaining that some employers don’t allow their nursing staff to keep water bottles at work or a jug in the staff room, and watch bafflement turn to outrage.

Yet in the NHS, nurses almost expect to finish work exhausted and dehydrated, having gone without a break no matter how intense the shift. 

Evidence of how time-poor nurses really are

The findings of Nursing Standard's latest nurse well-being survey provide important evidence of this worrying trend.

Three-quarters of the almost 2,250 nurses who responded said it is common for them not to have a single break during a shift; 80% have gone a whole shift without a drink of water.

‘Respondents to Nursing Standard’s well-being survey reported breaks and their own hydration never being priorities’

The poll results are as sad as they are enraging, not simply because of the terrible burden borne by individuals, but also because they speak to the wider and oh-so-familiar issue of short-staffing.

Daily reality of the nursing shortage

The 40,000-nurse vacancy total in England slips off the tongue or keyboard so often in discussion of NHS staffing that the real-life experience of what that number actually feels like is perhaps not fully appreciated.

Find out about our latest nurse well-being survey

Our survey highlights stories from the ‘front-line’, with respondents reporting ‘working to the bone’, breaks and their own hydration never being priorities because work is too ‘hectic’.

Some employers are being creative in trying to promote staff well-being. For example, Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is providing personalised water bottles to encourage hydration among nurses for whom drinking water is not readily accessible on shift.

This is a simple but meaningful measure because it acknowledges the problem and addresses it in a practical way.

But the far bigger issue is the gross mismatch between staffing and workload – and that is proving far harder to resolve.

Sustained boost to nurse numbers can only come from government 

Every time Nursing Standard explores well-being issues – and we're doing so increasingly, due to popular demand – we hope we offer you realistic, expert advice on staying as well as possible at work.

The same approach to staffing levels is essential at government policy level if nurses are actually going to be able to take a break without the nagging feeling they just can't spare the time.