7 brilliant NHS staff tell us what it’s really like working the wards over Christmas

Written by Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

From the long hours they put in, to the festive fun behind-the-scenes, here’s what it’s really like to be an NHS staff member working the Christmas shift. 

While many of us are busy dreaming about our perfect Christmas, countless NHS workers will be forgoing the traditional turkey dinner and presents under the tree to work in hospitals all over the country over the holidays.

Thanks to the likes of Casualty, Scrubs, and Grey’s Anatomy, it’s all too easy to assume that we know what this will look like – but the reality is, obviously, very different to that shown on our TV screens.

And so, to get a better understanding of what Christmas on the wards really looks like, we reached out to seven brilliant NHS staff to find out how they will be spending their 25 December.

Here’s what they had to say.

Lottie, paramedic

Is this your first time working the Christmas shift?

“I’ve worked most Christmas Days from the age of 17, apart from last year when I had Christmas off! It was brilliant, but this year I will be working across Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and the 27 December with West Midlands Ambulance Service as a paramedic. I’ve never minded working on Christmas Day, though, as all the patients we meet are usually so jolly and everyone is in really high spirits!”

Do you have to wake up extra early?

“I will be working a minimum of 12 hours this Christmas Day. My day starts with waking up at 5.30am and getting myself to work for 6.15am ready to start at 6.30am. The job can be incredibly challenging but also very rewarding, it’s definitely a career for someone who loves people and has strong interpersonal skills.”

What will your shift entail?

“My job usually varies day to day with no day ever being the same, which is what I love. I love that I am constantly learning on the job and meeting and caring for new people all the time. 

“Usually it isn’t busy at the start of Christmas Day: everyone wants to spend it with their family and not bother the NHS services. After lunch, though, at around 3pm, things really pick up as people get a bit merrier, which means the evening can be a bit hectic!”

How do you feel about working the Christmas shift?

“When I was a kid, my parents worked in A&E as nurses on Christmas Day, so it’s become the norm for our family. It continues to be the norm even now being older and having our own lives; it’s also quite normal to celebrate Christmas Day a few days before or after 25 December. In fact, we celebrated it on 23 December last year because of the shifts people in our family were working!

“This year, though, my family is celebrating Christmas on the actual day as mum and dad aren’t working, so I’ll be joining them in the evening after my shift has finished – I hope they’ve saved me some turkey! The evening is always a fun time as that’s when we play all the games.”

How will you be injecting some festive fun into your shift?

“I won’t be working with my regular crewmate this year, but it’s always fun to meet someone new and I will be bringing in some chocolates and festive cheer regardless. I have a cute little reindeer scrunchie which I will wear over the Christmas holiday as well.”

What would you like people to remember about NHS staff working over Christmas? 

“This Christmas is going to be the most challenging Christmas anyone’s ever had. If I could ask of anything from everyone it’s that you thank your NHS staff for their consistent commitment and care. A simple ‘Merry Christmas’ or a ‘Thank You’ honestly makes our day. Nothing ever goes unappreciated.”

Lottie works for the West Midlands Ambulance Service.

Arzia, occupational therapy technical instructor 

Where are you working over Christmas?

“I’m an occupational therapy technical instructor, but on Christmas Day I’ll be working as a nursing assistant, which is the role I use to do, on one of our mental health wards. This means that I’ll be waking up at about 5.30am for a 12 hour shift – and I’ll be working from 7.30am – 7.45pm.”

What will your day look like?

“I’ll be taking observations of patients, talking to them one-to-one and making sure they’re ok, plus serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

How do you feel about working the Christmas shift?

“I’m excited! I don’t celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense myself, but it’ll be nice to spread some Christmas spirit and make the day more homely for our patients who can’t go home or see their relatives. Myself and my colleagues are planning party games during the day, as well as have some karaoke fun and watch Christmas films – there’s already been a request to show Home Alone! And I’ll still be spending time with my family over the festive season, too!”

What would you like people to remember about NHS staff working over Christmas? 

“That people in the NHS are not only working on Christmas Day, but have been working throughout the pandemic, plus many have lost loved ones this year. I just think it’s important to be mindful of what a difficult year it has been, and try to bring some Christmas spirit to everyone in the NHS.”

Arzia works for the Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust.

Michelle, healthcare assistant in the Clinical Decisions Unit

What does your Christmas look like this year?

“This year, I will be working over the Christmas period on the CDU (Clinical Decisions Unit) at Glenfield Hospital, which is one of the emergency department’s supporting units. I will be taking care of patients that arrive on our admission unit, making sure observations are done, that the patient is comfortable and clean, and generally keeping their spirits up during the Christmas holidays. No Christmas jumpers, though: I will be in my uniform throughout the day in the appropriate PPE.”

What sort of hours will you be working?

“Working over Christmas can be demanding, and this year I will be working 11.5 hours, which means I will be up at 6am for my 7.30am shifts.However, it is so rewarding in many ways, particularly boosting patients’ morale at this time of year, as a health care support worker we become an invaluable part of a patient’s journey back to health.”

Is this your first Christmas shift?

“It’s not my first Christmas shift, no. The first one I ever did was lovely: as a team we had Christmas headbands on, or tinsel in our buns, and this boosted not only team morale but also patients’ spirits. The patients had mince pies with their cups of tea, and the atmosphere was great – we even had volunteers singing Christmas carols, and Santa popped by for a visit before going up to the children’s ward.”

What will you be doing to bring some Christmas cheer to the day?

“Things will be done very differently this year due to the social distancing measures in place, but this doesn’t mean we will be losing our festive headbands! They will just be put through the wash a little more. I am hoping we will have individually wrapped chocolate treats and cakes to go with our individual packed lunches.”

How do you feel about working over Christmas?

“It is hard as I have children, but I just keep thinking to myself that at the end of the shift I get to go home to my family. This year has been incredibly tough on everyone, and, thanks to Covid-19, many of my patients aren’t able to see or visit their family. Some don’t even have a family to go home to.

“With this in mind, I always put my situation into perspective and know that we are there to support and offer patients the best care we can provide during what can be a difficult time.

“Plus, while I’m working Christmas Eve and Boxing Day this year, I am lucky enough to have the 25 December off. So I will be able to cook and enjoy a full Christmas dinner with my family, and then spend the evening playing games and watching Christmas films.”

What would you like people to remember about NHS staff working over Christmas? 

“That we are there for them no matter what day it is. And, even though we cannot be with our families, we will be there to look after theirs with smiles on our faces no matter what. If you’re thinking about working in healthcare, then please do it: it’s one of the most rewarding jobs. You’ll be welcomed with open arms whichever career path you take within the NHS. I have taken many roads in my career, but this is the road I should have taken a long time ago… I’ve not looked back since I did.”

Michelle works for the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

Navandeep, maternity care assistant

Where will you be working this Christmas?

“Last year on Christmas eve I worked in the children’s A&E department, looking after all the poorly little ones that were coming in. However, I started working as a maternity care assistant in February, so this year for Christmas Day I’m going to be working on the maternity floor which I’m really looking forward to. Giving birth around Christmas always seems so special and some women are really excited about the possibility of having their baby on Christmas Day!”

How many hours will you be working?

“Luckily this Christmas I am going to be working a half day so I’ll be waking up at 6am to get into work around 6.45am and then the shift will start at 7am and end at 1.30pm – just in time to make it back home for lunch!

What will your Christmas shift look like?

“It will be much like any other day, with the exception that we won’t know what area of the ward we’re working in: we could be doing anything from assisting care for women just after they’ve given birth, or actually assisting the midwife during labour and delivery. I also have to check our stock cupboards to make sure that we have all of the equipment we need for the day.”

“If I’m working on the post-natal ward then I’ll be caring for a lot of women and their babies, offering support to them when they’ve just given birth and are starting to breastfeed their baby. There are so many different aspects to this job and I always feel like I’m constantly learning new things every day.

“I didn’t realise how involved I would be as a maternity care assistant but I love it as I find it so interesting and it’s a great insight into the role of a midwife which is what I hope to progress to. I would say if you are passionate about providing support and care for others but not sure what health role to go into, healthcare support roles are a great starting point to give you an idea of areas you can progress in – there are loads to choose from!”

How do you feel about working over Christmas?

“I’m feeling really good about working over Christmas, as everyone is always in high spirits and I really enjoy working with our team – we all offer each other so much support. It’s also lovely to be with women as they go through this really exciting time in their lives. 

“My Trust is also really good and usually fair with rotas so if we work Christmas Day then we usually get News Year’s Day off, or vice versa.”

Do you and your colleagues have any festive fun planned for the wards?

“Of course! Food is always an important part of Christmas so I think we’re going to be eating festively at work, obviously following the infection prevention guidelines. The Trust is also planning to provide an individual packed Christmas lunch for the staff which I think is a really nice touch.”

When and how will you celebrate Christmas with your family and friends?

“I’m going to be finishing my shift at 1:30pm this year so get to go back to my family just in time for lunch – I hope it’s not all gone by the time I get there!”

What would you like people to remember about NHS staff working over Christmas?

“Just that the NHS is here for you when you need us and will provide excellent care for you. Some people think that it may be less busy over Christmas but women don’t stop giving birth just because it’s Christmas Day, so we’re always going to be here for anyone that needs us.”

Navandeep works for the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

Emma, critical care nurse

What will your Christmas look like this year?

“I have worked the past few Christmases in Oncology (cancer) and Accident & Emergency, but this year I will be working in Intensive Care at Manchester Royal Infirmary. Each ward takes a different approach to Christmas depending on their patients’ needs, but in every case the staff make a special effort to celebrate over the Christmas shifts and make it special for our patients.

“I am working a day shift, which means a 12.5 hour shift (with breaks). It’s long, but it enables us to provide better continuity of care. To us, this is a normal shift pattern so we don’t have to extend our hours. As we’re working in Intensive Care, we provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so from a work perspective it is just like a normal working day.”

How early will you need to wake up?

“My shift will start at 7:30am, when I will receive a handover for my allocated patient. In Intensive Care, the majority of our patients are critically ill and require organ support such as ventilators to help them breathe. I begin my day completing my safety checks because you never know when an emergency will happen in the Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU).

“I imagine my routine will include administering medications, vital signs, taking bloods, monitoring vital infusions and the ventilator just to name a few. Our shift will finish at 8.00pm in the evening. The biggest difference for us this year will be the fact that we will be wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). This is going to be more of a challenge because it naturally creates a social barrier which you have to work extra hard to overcome.”

How do you feel about working the Christmas shift?

“My first Christmas shift was difficult because it’s hard not to feel like you are missing out with your family, but at the end of the day we are doing it for our patients so that keeps you going. I remember I was working on an Oncology ward, so it was important to make a special effort. Our ward provided Christmas dinners for patients and staff and put a Christmas tree up on the ward. That evening, my dad drove down to London to pick me up from my shift, I was off Boxing Day so we celebrated the next day. Not sure my family were happy about having to wait to open their presents a day late though!”

“Nowadays, I am quite used to working Christmas so I don’t mind it and everyone is usually in good spirits. And, after the events of this year, I am actually quite looking forward to it because our team is amazing and we have been through so much together already.

“We will probably bring in treats for everyone to share, which will involve lots of chocolate. I don’t think we will be wearing any festive hats this year on top of our PPE!”

When and how will you celebrate with family and friends?

“I will be driving back to Chester straight after my shift and celebrating with my family. I am off Boxing Day so I will need a lie in after my long shift then I think I will be helping with the cooking and cannot wait to spend some quality time with my family. This year has been challenging not just for NHS workers, but for everyone across the country and the Christmas period is a really special time.”

What would you like people to remember about NHS staff working over Christmas?

“NHS staff are committed to providing the best possible care every day of the year, which means some of us will be away from our families over Christmas. We always make every effort we can to ensure a special day for our patients and this year we will try and make it extra special as we know our patients won’t be able to see their loved ones. I am sure there will be lots of video calls.”

Emma works for the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust.

Emily, trainee nursing associate

Where are you working over Christmas?

“I’ll be working on my hospital’s Beech Ward, caring for older people with a range of mental health illnesses. This means that I’ll be providing lots of holistic care – sitting and talking to those who may be feeling a bit upset, helping to make lots of FaceTime calls to friends and family, and helping if there are any window visits with family. Plus, I’ll probably be making lots of brews and giving out biscuits!”

How many hours will you be working? 

“I’m working 7.30am-3pm on Christmas Eve and then 1pm-9pm on Christmas Day.”

How do you feel about working the Christmas shift?

“This is the first time I’ve worked over Christmas, and it does feel weird, but I actually volunteered to work – our patients won’t be seeing their families, so I felt it was important to be there for them. It’s a big day for many people, though, so I do feel a lot of pressure to make it a special one for them.”

Do you and your colleagues have anything fun planned?

“Yes, we’ve organised a secret Santa between the staff and we’ve got a big buffet planned. Plus, we’ve made up hampers and have loads of Christmas films planned!”

When will you celebrate with family and friends?

“I’m going to my mum’s Christmas Eve after my shift – we’ll go to Christingle and I’ll be there Christmas morning. On Boxing Day I’ll be having my Christmas dinner with my boyfriend and his family.”

What would you like people to remember about NHS staff working over Christmas?

“Even though we’re working and we’re not with our own families, we are with our work family who are just as important. Also many of our patients won’t be seeing their loved ones, so please do send in cards and letters if you can.”

Emily works for the Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust.

Zara, registered adult nurse

Where will you be working this Christmas?

“For Christmas this year I am going to be on the same ward as I was on last Christmas: the acute surgical ward. This is where I get to provide care and treatment for patients before and after their surgery.”

How many hours will you be working?

“Nurses typically work 12-hour shifts, three days a week, so if we are scheduled to work a long day shift, then we’ll get into work for 7.30am for the morning for hand over. This is where our colleagues catch us up on our patients’ progression and anything important we need to know. We’ll then normally finish at 8pm in the evening. However, this Christmas I will be working a night shift, so I will be in for an 8pm start on Christmas Eve and finishing at 7.30am in the morning on Christmas Day.”

What will your Christmas shift look like?

“In terms of our work, we will continue to be doing our normal duties as nurses and providing the highest quality of care for our patients. However, we do of course always want to make sure that Christmas is an extra special day for our patients, as we know it can be really hard being away from their families. We normally put on a few special surprises for them – including putting on a Christmas lunch for our patients and staff members which always goes down well!”

“Of course this year this will all be done in line with infection prevention and control measures. We’re also so grateful that we get donations over Christmas, so we have created an initiative where we’re able to make gift sets for our patients so they can open a present on Christmas Day. This will usually be a toiletry gift package, to help them feel like they’re getting ready for a normal Christmas Day. Luckily, we always have a willing healthcare professional who wants to put on the Father Christmas hat and hand out the presents –it’s so lovely to see the smiles on our patients faces!

“Communication is also key on Christmas Day as some patients aren’t able to see their loved ones. We make sure to spend an extra minute on the phone to families and make sure that patients are getting the time they need to talk to their loved ones on this special day.”

How do you feel about working over Christmas?

“I feel like working on Christmas Day reminds me of how special it is to be a nurse. I don’t see it as a sacrifice or something where I’m going to be away from my family. I see it as: my patients are in hospital and it’s my responsibility to make sure they are looked after.

“I feel so proud to be a nurse and feel in a particularly privileged role on this day, as I am able to provide the best care to my patients who may not be able to see loved ones. Working on Christmas Day reminds us all of the incredible and life-changing work that we do as nurses and how important our roles are.”

Do you and your colleagues have any festive fun planned for the wards?

“I’m so lucky to work with colleagues from all different cultures and religions and we all make the effort to make that day really special for each other and our patients. I work in a multicultural hospital and it is so special to see everyone come together like one big family and everyone is in such high spirits.

“This year we are all going to be wearing Christmas accessories and I love doing this: it injects another bit of fun into the day and our patients love seeing what we’ve put on. It’s such a small effort but has such a big impact and it’s so lovely to see the joy it can bring our patients.

“Of course chocolates are always a great treat to have, but I think what’s nice is the lunch they do for patients and staff as it really feels like you’re celebrating being together. You’ll also always see a funny Christmas jumper and some people love to whack out their Christmas scrubs – but when else will you get a chance to wear them?”

When and how will you celebrate Christmas with your family and friends?

“Funnily enough it is actually my dad’s birthday on Christmas Day, so we use it as a time to come together and just be with one another as a family. With Covid-19 this year I think I’m going to go back to my own house but we’ll find a way to get together at another time.”

What would you like people to remember about NHS staff working over Christmas?

“I would just like people to know that NHS professionals are here for patients 24/7. We are a dedicated service of skilled people who are passionate to care for others. It’s great that initiatives such as the ‘We are the NHS’ campaign show the incredible work that we’re able to do and get to show nursing as the extremely dynamic and rewarding career that it is.

“I would recommend anyone that’s thinking about a career in nursing to definitely go for it. I hope that everyone has a safe and joyful Christmas.”

Zara works for the Barts Health NHS Trust.

Arzia, Emily, Emma, Lottie, Michelle, Navandeep and Zara are supporting the We Are The NHS campaign. To find out more about a career in the NHS, please search ‘NHS Careers’ or visit We Are The NHS to find available roles and training support on offer.

If you would like to send Christmas cards to NHS staff or patients, you can look up the address of your local Trust via the NHS website.

Images: NHS

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