The Ethics of Managing Your Personal Time

Ethics involves more than how we treat our patients; it involves how we treat our coworkers as well.
There’s a lot said about ethics in nursing, and much of it -- most of it, probably -- pertains toward the ethical treatment of patients. Not charting meds you haven’t given or procedures you haven’t done, admitting your med errors and setting about to mitigate the damage just as soon as you realize you’ve made an error, truth and honor in communicating with other members of the health care team. Those are all examples of nursing ethics and I won’t denigrate their value. But it seems to me that managing your personal time is as much about ethics as any of those other topics.

Nursing, especially hospital nursing, is a job that must be covered 24/7/365. Nights, weekends, holidays and the night of the biggest blizzard or biggest tornado of the year notwithstanding, our patients must be cared for. If your nurse manager is getting married and everyone wants to be there, someone still has to work. If a valued colleague is being buried and everyone wants to be there, someone still has to work.

I will never forget the day a popular night nurse was being married and 7 of the 13 nurses scheduled for the night shift developed sudden cases of the flu. Six of them were front and center trying to catch the bouquet when the manager snapped a picture . . . and all of them were sitting in her office on Monday morning signing letters of reprimand.

Most of us have so many hours of sick time. We’re supposed to use it to cover actual illnesses, although many have extended that to cover mental health days as well. That’s great if you can manage it. Our hospital’s attendance policy is so strict and so unreasonable that it mandates coming to work sick even while the written policy explicitly forbids it. If you’re disciplined for using more than three sick days a year and you’ve already had food poisoning, an abcessed tooth with a fever of 104 and a child who broke their arm jumping off the roof just as you were leaving for work, you’re either going to come to work with the flu or risk being disciplined. You’ll probably base your decision less upon how contagious you might be and more upon how many occurences you’ve already had, where you are in the disciplinary continuum and how much of a rule-follower you are.

It seems to me that ethics ought to be about managing our personal time off -- and I’m mostly talking about sick calls here -- in such a manner that you’d be happy to explain your decision making process on “Sixty Minutes” , to your priest in the confessional or to St. Peter. If you’re not sick on Christmas Day, please don’t call in sick and force the rest of us to work short. None of us want to be there on Christmas, either, and we’d appreciate a chance to sit down for lunch to enjoy the potluck we’ve all contributed to. If you’re not scheduled off the day of the unit picnic, and you can’t arrange to trade shifts with someone who isn’t interested in going, please show up for work. Calling in sick that day is just not cool. Nor is it ethical.

If your water heater explodes giving you second degree burns, by all means, call in sick. That’s what sick time is for. But most people never have that experience and I find it difficult to believe you’ve had it happen three times so far this year. Ditto with the death in the family excuse. How many grandmothers did you have, anyway? Even if we counted step-grandparents and great grandparents, eight seems to be a bit excessive.

It ought to go without saying that we treat our co-workers with honor and integrity. Unfortunately, it needs to be said.

Don’t blow off your call shifts. Saying “I forgot” just does not fly -- especially the second and third time it happens. If you’re not in the ER or the funeral home, come to work on your scheduled Christmas and Thanksgiving and if your grandmother isn’t dying, don’t say she is so you can avoid work. There are times it sucks to be a hospital nurse and come to work when everyone else is having a good time. That’s what we signed up for, though, so that’s what we ought to do.

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