Last Minute Sick Calls Wreak Havoc on Nursing Units

Awhile back my husband, employed at a hospital, came home from work saying, “Hey, if you’re thinking about going back to PICU nursing, they’d probably hire you tonight. They’re down three nurses from sick calls.” 

by jparadisi
by jparadisi

Ah, yes — sick calls and their impact on nurse-to-patient staffing. Is there any phone call that wreaks more havoc on nursing units than the last-minute sick call?

In the outpatient setting where I work, sick calls from coworkers are not as dire as they are in hospital settings. Even if I detect a slight grimace in the voice of the nurse on the other end of the phone as she sizes up the day’s schedule, she always says, “I hope you feel better. Get some rest,” and I know that she means it. We take care of one another that way. In fact, we encourage one another to stay home when sick — not only to protect our patients, but also because we don’t want exposure to one another’s illnesses.

Not all nursing units share this courtesy, however. Years ago, I worked for a hospital with centralized staffing. Schedulers, not nurses, received and tracked all staff sick calls within the hospital. For the one I spoke to, calling in sick wasn’t enough. She demanded a diagnosis: “What exactly do you have?”

Never exposed to this sort of interrogation over a sick call before, I was annoyed.

“I have projectile vomiting and diarrhea,” was my response.

She ended the conversation abruptly, after excusing me from work.

It’s hard to argue with projectile vomiting and diarrhea.

Some hospitals have developed methods for dealing with unexpected sick calls, such as float pools of resource nurses with a variety of skill sets, scheduled on call for several units. In others, nurses agree to come in for an ailing coworker, who then picks up one of that nurse’s shifts, offering the unit nursing coverage while avoiding overtime.

It’s contradictory to urge nurses to give compassionate patient care if their employer does not treat them compassionately, too. Sick calls cost healthcare institutions money, no doubt, but it is unrealistic to believe sick calls are completely preventable.

Staffing is an ongoing dilemma in healthcare: There often are not enough nurses, and just as often, there are too many. Like Goldilocks looking for a place to rest, we strive to get a staffing number that’s just right. This predicament is unlikely to disappear, so why not be civil about it?

How does your institution manage nurse sick calls? Have you or another nurse been penalized for sick calls? Has your institution developed solutions?

1 Comment

  1. My hospital manages sick calls very poorly…nurses who call in sick for a weekend shift are penalized by being scheduled to work on a subsequent “off” weekend. And there are almost never nurses available to cover the shifts, leaving units dangerously understaffed. I can see the staffing dilemma from an administrative point of view, but my facility has certainly not found a solution. Nurses come to work sick or nurse-patient ratios suffer. Patient safety is compromised, either way.


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