Featured Wellness

Working the holidays for the first time? An experienced RN has some tips

Written by Lindsay Smith

While many of us are enjoying time off for the holidays in the next couple weeks, we know there will be many health-care workers who are working hard, caring for patients and their families. We are so grateful to our staff who work through the holidays, providing the best possible care for patients when they’re sick or injured.

Jessie Gibson, a registered nurse in Sunnybrook’s Tory Trauma Program, knows it isn’t always easy for new nurses or health-care workers to navigate working through the holidays, so she’s sharing some tips on how to keep those traditions, make the season special and find time for what matters without burning yourself out.

Prioritize your most important holiday events

Jessie says everyone’s schedule is going to be different, whether they’re working days or nights, but she says one thing she’s found helpful is to determine ahead of time what traditions, events or days are most important and trying to ensure those happen, even if nothing else does.

“My grandparents, for example, are really big on hosting Christmas Eve, so in that case I might prioritize attending Christmas Eve at my grandparents’, even if it means working on Christmas Day,” she says.

And maybe it’s waking up a little earlier before a shift to participate in a special tradition with family before work, or celebrating on a different day when everyone is available (this can work well if your family members have more flexible schedules).

“I’d say it’s important to pinpoint what’s most important for your family and trying to make those instead of trying to attend every event because that’s just not realistic when you’re working 12-hour shifts,” Jessie says.

Managing disappointment from loved ones

It can definitely be disappointing for family members, and you, if you’re working the holidays for the first time. Jessie says one of the things she’s learned is the importance of open communication with your loved ones.

“If they’re not aware of the health-care system, really explaining that it’s 24/7, 365 days a year. The hospital doesn’t close on Christmas, and there will be people there who still need to be cared for,” she says.

Making time for the most important traditions can help ease some disappointment for everyone. Jessie gives the example of her family’s tradition of baking before the holidays.

“My family does Christmas baking every year, so I’m going to see them this weekend actually, and we’re going to do our baking together,” she says.

It can be difficult to explain to children, but Jessie says explaining that just as they want someone to take care of them when they’re sick, there will be people in the hospital who are sick or hurt and will need someone to take care of them.

And since holiday schedules are often set weeks in advance, that provides an opportunity to discuss with your loved ones what days you’ll be working and begin to set expectations, for them and for you, early.

Remember who make the holidays special 

It can feel as though everyone around you is celebrating their holidays, and you might feel as though you’re missing out because you’re working. But Jessie says there are ways to make the holidays special regardless, which can also help manage those feelings of disappointment.

“I think, first, it’s remembering that it’s not necessarily the day that makes it special, it’s the people,” she says.

It might mean celebrating a bit early or late, depending on your schedule, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep all the same traditions and eat all the same food and celebrate the way you would on the “right” days. And that’s what matters most.

“With the holidays, it’s more about who you’re with than the actual day it’s on, so I think if you’re going to dinner, do it how you always would and if it’s on a different day, that’s fine — you’re still celebrating with your loved ones,” Jessie says.

Cluster your care

When you’re working 12-hour shifts, the long holiday to-do list might feel daunting. How do you buy presents, do your grocery shopping, make all the goodies (along with everything else) without burning out?

“I think, one, online shopping,” Jessie says with a laugh.

As for running errands, she says she uses an approach she’s learned as a nurse called “clustering your care.”

“The idea is, if you have two or three days off, maybe you can run all your errands on one day: pick up your gifts, do your groceries, things like that. And then that leaves you a day for yourself to decompress and rest,” she says.

This won’t be true for everyone, but Jessie says cooking and baking are self-care activities for her, so that helps with the holiday baking or cooking tasks. If they’re not relaxing for you, maybe you don’t need to bake as many treats, or can simplify holidays meals so it’s not overwhelming.

Avoiding burnout is critical, though, so while it’s important to be organized, have a plan and get those tasks done, Jessie emphasizes taking at least a day of your time off to rest and recuperate and take some time for yourself, especially during the busy holiday season.

Don’t forget to care for you

You don’t have to pretend that you’re happy working over the holidays if it’s disappointing for you.

“I think it’s okay to be upset that you’re working over the holidays,” Jessie says. “It’s okay to feel that way, to maybe feel a bit left out of the festivities.”

For health-care workers working their first holiday season, it can be a big adjustment, especially since you get holidays off while in school. If you’re finding it particularly tough, Jessie recommends reaching out to family, to your support system, or a professional to help you manage — because it’s important to take care of yourself.

“Yes, you spend your days taking care of other people and you’re trying to coordinate your holiday schedule to work for everyone, but make sure you’re taking care of yourself, too. It’s really important,” says Jessie.

About the author

Lindsay Smith