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Nurses have no time to drink or take toilet breaks

New survey reveals culture of overwork

Jo Carlowe

Tuesday, 01 October 2019

"Inhumane" shifts and a lack of staffing are preventing nurses from "sipping water" or using the toilet, a new survey shows.

Eight out of ten nurses have gone an entire shift without a single drink of water, with more than half saying it happens at least once a week, the survey for Nursing Standard revealed.


Nurses responding to a survey cited a lack of staffing as preventing them from taking proper breaks, having a drink or even using the toilet, as they struggle to meet their patients’ needs.

The findings prompted a warning from the Royal College of Nursing that it is "inhumane" to leave staff without access to drinking water and in "danger of dehydration at work."

The findings of the Nursing Standard survey, completed by 2,243 UK nurses, included:

  • 52% of nurses went through a shift at least once or twice a week without drinking any water or having the chance to hydrate
  • 76% of nurses said they had regularly gone through a shift and not had time to take a break
  • 56% of nurses felt their manager was not concerned about their well-being

Despite good practice from some employers, such as staff being given their own water bottles and setting up "hydration stations", just one in five nurses who responded to our survey said they always had a chance to hydrate at work.

Some nurses reported they are not allowed to have water bottles at work, and one was even barred from putting a jug of water in their staff room.

Nursing Standard editor Flavia Munn said: “It will probably shock those outside of the NHS to hear that many nurses go through an entire shift without even a sip of water. But nurses start work almost expecting to end their day feeling exhausted and dehydrated having gone without a break.

“Our survey shows staff 'working to the bone' in a health service that is understaffed and overworked - the sad reality behind the 40,000 nursing vacancies in England alone.

“This should cause outrage as these are the people who care for us and our loved-ones at times of greatest need. Its high time nurses are cared for too with sufficient colleagues so that they can take a well-deserved break.”

Commenting on the findings, Kim Sunley, Royal College of Nursing national officer for health and safety, said: “It is inhumane for organisations not to let staff have access to drinking water, along with breaking health and safety regulations.

“We are aware that access to breaks is a problem, and it is a symptom of the wider issue around nursing shortages. When nurses don’t have breaks or are not hydrated, it is a patient safety issue.

“We’re calling on the public in England to fight for more nurses and sign our petition calling on the Westminster government to invest in the future workforce and make clear who is accountable in law for safe patient care.”

Responding, an NHS England spokesperson told OnMedica: "Clearly NHS staff should be able to eat, drink and rest during shifts, but we know nurses and midwives will often put patients’ needs above their own.

“Many local hospital have come up with good solutions to help find the right balance during busy times so – as well as continuing to fill nursing vacancies – the NHS will also be encouraging others to follow their lead.”

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