The Unexpected Virtue of Working at the Hospital on Christmas

Dec 23, 2020

Written by Washout Curve

A PGY4 Emergency Medicine registrar, musing on the wonder and weirdness of hospital medicine. Follow him on Instagram @washoutcurve

It was the end of October, I’m in the final weeks of my anaesthetics rotation, waiting in line at the hospital cafe to pick up the theatre team’s coffee order—my job as the most junior team member. My phone vibrated in my pocket, there was a new email from the hospital rostering office, “Term 5 ICU roster - FINAL”. As I opened the attached PDF file, I was simultaneously filled with anticipation and dread. 

I’ve worked ward cover shifts the last two Christmas Days in a row — every one since I became a doctor. Having learnt from my mistakes I specifically requested to be rostered on over New Years instead this year. But a request is not a guarantee, and the ICU’s hallowed “Week On/Week Off” roster means my odds of success are a tight 50/50. I scrolled down to late December and felt my shoulders drop. I’m working on Christmas (again).

In the weeks since, I have come to terms with this. Thinking back on the past two years, I realised I had far more fond memories about working on Christmas than foul ones. In fact, once I had gotten over the initial disappointment of missing out on Christmas Day for the first (and then the second) time ever, the shifts themselves were quite pleasant, dare I say enjoyable. For those on the eve of their first Christmas in the hospital, here is a taste of the upsides of being one of Santa’s little helpers on the wards.

Food, food and more food

The greatest thing about working on Christmas Day is the sheer abundance of food in the hospital. Christmas 2019 was a culinary frenzy for me, featuring a gluttonous roast lunch provided by food services, a pot-luck buffet dinner on the ward and a continuous onslaught of sugary treats thrust upon me by nurses. Sharing food with your colleagues is a time-honoured Christmas tradition in the hospital, which for some borders on a competitive sport.

Wear your loosest set of scrubs and be prepared for a feast. Calories consumed on after hours shifts are guilt-free, and that counts more than ever on Christmas.

Everyone is in the same boat

Most people working in the hospital on Christmas would rather be somewhere else. There is a sense of camaraderie that forms among colleagues in this situation. When everyone is away from their loved ones, the hospital becomes a surrogate family for the day. There's a kind of magic in the air on Christmas— difficult to quantify or explain, but everyone seems to have a spring in their step. They smile wider and laugh louder, and everyone is just that little bit kinder to one another, and more willing to go the extra mile for their colleagues. As a result, the day tends to be a very pleasant one (dare I say quiet), and the general aura of good cheer permeating the hospital makes for an enjoyable day at work. "That Christmas we worked together" will become a cherished memory you share with your fellow JMOs, a day with a certain unquantifiable charm.

You're taking one for the team

Drawing the short straw to work on Christmas brings with it many consolations. You are essentially guaranteed not to be rostered on for any of the other Christmas/New Year public holidays, and will be given carte blanche over any other roster requests for the rest of the term. I myself scored three consecutive ADOs either side of New Years last year— a grand total of five days off in a row.

The goodwill you earn with your rostering department by working on Christmas Day should not be underestimated, it may be what gets you across the line for that highly sought after term, or gives you the edge on your reference come recruitment time next year.

Christmas time also begets generosity when it comes to shift swaps. The spirit of giving is alive and well among healthcare workers. In my last two Christmases in the hospital, I have been amazed at the outpouring of generosity from my colleagues without children who willingly swapped into Christmas shifts, allowing those with young families to spend the holiday at home with their kids. 

There are also many doctors and nurses who do not celebrate Christmas who volunteer to work on the holidays. Christmas Day of my intern year was spent with one such colleague, a Malay Muslim doctor who had volunteered to work on Christmas Day in exchange for having Eid off earlier in the year. This was his first experience of Christmas (albeit the bizarre Australian secular kitschy version) and he loved it— the food, the atmosphere and the sense of community within the hospital. He too worked Christmas Day 2019 with me, and is coming back for more this year.

Did I mention food?

Seriously, you would not believe how much food you will eat on a Christmas shift.  

Your patients will appreciate you more than ever

Being stuck in hospital over Christmas can be a depressing prospect. The efforts of staff to foster Christmas cheer within the hospital is ultimately for the benefit of the patients— decorating the ward, sharing a Christmas lunch and spending time with our patients creates a facsimile of Christmas at home. While it may not be the Christmas they expected, it is still one where they are surrounded by people who care for (and about them). Covering the wards on Christmas means being a small part of something bigger for your patients.

Caring for people on Christmas Day is an absolutely delightful experience, patients are thankful for your time and effort you spend looking after them. While we don't do this job for kudos or glory, the often thankless nature of working in healthcare is a major cause of burnout, and even something as simple as a "Merry Christmas" from a patient can make a big difference.

You have the power to make it a Merry Christmas for all

Spending the festive season at work may not be what we had planned for, but that doesn't mean it has to be an exercise in misery. The key to enjoying your Christmas at the hospital is to allow yourself to enjoy it. Wear a Santa hat, bring a plate of food, and make an effort to spread cheer through your good works and good attitude. The true magic of Christmas is the magic you bring to work with you.


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