Nurses Work in Tight Spaces Under Intense Circumstances

I’m standing in the patient nutrition nook, eating a mid-morning snack of yogurt with a plastic fork, because I can’t find the plastic spoons. Twelve feet away, a patient can see me from her infusion chair. She smiles and waves at me.

At the same time, another nurse joins me in the nook, which is so tiny we stand nearly shoulder-to-shoulder as she responds to a text from her kids. This doesn’t bother me; she’s just looking for a private moment, same as me.

Under Oregon law, farmers selling eggs are required to make changes in how their chickens are raised by 2026.

watercolor painting by jparadisi

watercolor painting by jparadisi

According to the article, egg farmers must increase the personal space of each chicken from 67 square inches to 116.3 square inches. I’m trying to visualize what this would translate to proportionately in private space for nurses.

I don’t know very much about chickens, but I do know a little about nurses. We work in tight spaces under intense circumstances.

Finding a private spot from which to make a phone call or even to enjoy a quiet half hour during a lunch break is nearly impossible for nurses. A staff lounge for breaks provides respite from direct contact with patients, but since it’s a common area, not only nurses you work with, but people from ancillary departments, usually share it too.

Here’s the thing about people — we’re all different. For some, a break means eating a lunch brought from home, catching up with friends’ updates on Facebook, or reading a book or magazine. Other nurses, however, are re-energized by using their breaks for socializing. There’s not a right way or wrong way to take a break from patient care; it’s a matter of personal diversity.

Regardless of either style, it’s not likely that hospital units or clinics will increase private space for nurses. While it’s acceptable for hens to be less productive when privacy needs are not met, it is not acceptable for nurses to be less productive or deliver unsafe care because of a lack of personal space.

How can nurses support each other’s privacy needs?

  • Respect each other’s different break styles by moderating the volume of conversation in the break room.
  • Exercise patience with coworkers who re-energize through socialization.
  • Text rather than talk on the phone whenever possible.
  • Be sensitive to signals the person you’re on break with may not want to talk, such as reading a book or magazine.

What is your personal privacy style at work? Does your institution provide a quiet space for nurses? What are your tips for finding moments of private time at work?

Chickens, Nurses, and Personal Space

photo: jparadisi 2011

It’s a busy morning at work and the schedule is full. IV pumps keep alarming and the phone never stops ringing. Eventually it’s lunchtime. Besides food, I crave a half hour of quiet.

While eating lunch in the staff lounge, I read an article in our local paper about a new Oregon law requiring farmers selling eggs to make changes in how their chickens are raised by 2026. Another nurse, also on her lunch break, chats animatedly on her cell phone. The lounge is small, affording neither of us privacy. To me, a break is a time for quiet. For her it’s for socializing and catching up with the people she loves. People are wired differently, and neither of us is wrong. At least we have a nice place to sit and eat our lunches, even if the room is small.

The article I’m reading says the changes egg farmers must make under the new law include increasing the personal space of each chicken from 67 square inches to 116.3 square inches, which means less chickens per cage, therefore less eggs. Opponents of the law argue that a dozen eggs may cost $8 in order for the farmers to make a profit once all the changes go into effect.

As on egg farms, space is at a premium in hospitals too. Not only for patient beds, but also for storing equipment needed to care for patients (big things like ventilators and wheel chairs), examination and procedure rooms, storage of office supplies…it goes on and on.  Nurses’ break rooms do not earn revenue, just like increased personal space for chickens means less profit for the egg farmer who employs people trying to make a living. Perhaps happier chickens lay more eggs than crowded ones; I don’t know very much about chickens.

But I do know a little about nurses. We work in tight spaces under intense circumstances.  Sometimes we gather to vent or laugh a little at the nurse’s station. Often, we get too loud. It’s not right, but it’s human. Maybe we need more personal space too.

Maybe dampening the sound of voices with three-quarter Plexiglas partitions at the nurses’ station is an option. I saw this in a hospital in California, where my father was a patient. Initially, I was put off that I couldn’t talk to a nurse at the desk. However, if I called for a nurse from his room, someone answered my call within minutes every time. Because I was in his room, and not wandering the halls looking for a nurse, I had no idea what occurred in other patient rooms. Privacy prevailed. Partitions make sense when discussing patient information over the phone. Patients and their families wouldn’t hear that either.

Plexiglas partitions are not a good idea in an ICU, where they might block rapid response to a patient’s critical turn of events. An effective alternative I’ve seen is a small alcove where a nurse can sit with a direct view of patient and monitors when not administering care. Every two rooms shared an alcove containing a computer and two phones. This discourages nurses from congregating at the nurses’ station, and perhaps lessens the risk of falling prey to alarm fatigue.

Nurses often need reminders to quiet down in patient care areas, but thoughtful workspace design and consideration of a nurse’s personal space may offer a more consistent solution.