Forced Overtime: Back With a Vengeance

Overtime is happening in many places as the shortage of qualified nurses gets worse. There is so much wrong with this on so many levels.

Who would have thought that clock would turn back to a time when workers were forced to work overtime, financially compensated or not? Didn’t the days of forced overtime end with the evolution of unions, along with the abolition of seven-day work weeks and no benefits? Well, if you’re a nurse, what’s old is new again.

Although an article in the Montreal Gazette, "Overtime imposed on nurses," is about nurses in Montreal, Canada, forced — or as the employers prefer, mandatory – overtime is happening in many places as the shortage of qualified nurses gets worse.

There is so much wrong with this on so many levels. When people apply for work and get set into their job, unless they work availability or variable hours, they have a certain number of hours in their work week. As nurses, we all get used the changing shifts or days that we work and our families get used to them — or tolerate them – too. Nurses who are parents have to arrange for childcare or they have events and activities they have to be available for – such as getting a child to an appointment made around the work schedule, watching soccer games, and so on. With the varying schedule that nurses live with, it can be difficult to juggle, but it’s do-able. Unless you’re told that your own time is no longer your own time, that is.

I can’t imagine being told, as my work day draws to an end, that I have to stay and work another four hours and it doesn’t matter that my childcare arrangements end three hours before that. It doesn’t matter that my child as a school play he or she is in that evening. It doesn’t matter that it’s my child’s birthday and there is going to be a party that afternoon. Even if you don’t have children, you make appointments, you make plans — all which must be broken because you are forced to work overtime. You may be expected to pick up a relative at the airport, go to a long-awaited medical appointment, tickets for the last night of a show you and your partner have waited months to see. But that all doesn’t matter.

If that isn’t bad enough, if a nurse refuses to work over time, he gets hit with an unpaid suspension — but only to be served later because they can’t manage without him now. So, when exactly is this unpaid suspension going to be served?

Seeing as there are people who don’t care that nurses have private lives, perhaps we can appeal to their sense of safety.A nurse who has worked until midnight one day and then has to report to work again for 8 a.m. the next day is going to be a tired nurse, an exhausted nurse. Whose responsibility will it be if she has a car accident causing death or severe injury to innocent people due to fatigue? Who will get reprimanded if he is so tired that he doesn’t hear the alarm and gets into work late? And — to appeal to the sense of patient safety and hospital responsibility – who is going to take responsibility for errors made due to fatigue? Studies have shown that exhausted, overworked nurses contribute to medication errors and the cross contamination of patients. Oddly enough, superiors are denying this though. According to the Gazette article, a representative from one of the hospital, “denied that all the overtime was putting patients' lives at risk: ‘I don't think there should be any fears.’"

Nurses are powerless to do anything about this. Unions are apparently powerless to do anything about this. Does a nurse have to die or cause extreme injury to someone else before someone sits up and takes notice that this is unacceptable?