Last night, my husband, employed at a hospital, came home from work saying, "Hey, if you're thinking about going back to PICU, they'd probably hire you tonight. They're down three nurses from sick calls."
Ah, yes -- cold and flu season and its 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 oncology setting where I work, sick calls from coworkers are usually not as dire as they are in hospital settings. Even if there is 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 these people, calling in sick wasn't enough. The woman taking my sick call 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," I told her. She excused me from work and ended the phone conversation abruptly. It's hard to argue with projectile vomiting and diarrhea.
Some hospitals have developed tools for dealing with unexpected sick calls, such as float pools of 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 in nursing to urge staff members 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?