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Spare a thought for the person responsible for the nurse roster over the holiday period, who has to deal with rolling last minute unplanned vacancies despite developing a carefully planned holiday roster.

This can be a stressful period for nurse roster managers who have, without exception, spent an inordinate amount of time organising the holiday roster to cater to staff wanting to take leave over the school holidays and spend time with their families over Christmas.

Managers try to develop a nurse roster that maintains that fine balance between keeping staff happy and engaged and ensuring patients receive the best possible care from experienced staff who are familiar with their facility.

Mel Steen, Charlton campus manager at the East Wimmera Health Service, Victoria, says “illness” is the most common reason given for unplanned leave during this busy time.

We’ve spoken to three experienced roster managers about how they manage their nurse roster over this challenging period. Here are their three top tips:

  1. Plan ahead

Maybe you’ve already noticed gaps in the roster and taken action to organise appropriate filler staff for the holiday period.

Now is the time to put out feelers once again for staff to work during the break should there be any unforeseen gaps in the roster.

Contact individuals via email or send out a group email to ensure they have updated their availability so you know when they’re happy to be contacted to fill shifts during the holidays. Use whatever communication channel or process that works best for your facility.

This approach is preferable to using an agency, where the staff might not be familiar with your facility or have the right qualifications and experience required for the role.

  1. Call in staff with relevant experience and skillsets

The goal is to maintain the same high level of care provided to patients at Christmas as all other times of the year.

To this end, make sure staff with varied skillsets and experience are on the contact list should a staff shortage arise.

Ms Steen says it helps to prepare a balanced roster. For example, you should be able check the standby list for a staff member with the same skillset as a staff member who calls in sick.

Also, it makes sense to call in staff who are familiar with the facility and have an understanding of its day-to-day operations. They are going to require less supervision and support than someone from an agency who has never worked there before.

  1. Keep talking to staff and constantly monitor the situation

Another manager of a regional health service in Victoria stresses the importance of working as a team during the holiday period.

Having a healthy working relationship with staff will pay dividends when dealing with staffing challenges, she says.

Jo Munday, director of clinical services at Belmont Private Hospital in Queensland, has two bed management meetings a day. This allows her to monitor and stay informed of any changes to the roster and keep the lines of communication open with staff.

Although there is no way to prepare for the unexpected, the roster managers agree that forward planning, good communication and a calm approach will help any roster manager navigate the holiday season.


Your staff will thank you and your patients will continue to feel comfortable and well cared for over what is every roster manager’s most challenging time of year.