“It’s all consuming. You have to love it to do it. It’s a physical and emotional sacrifice. I’d come home from a shift and my whole body was exhausted.”
We’re in Brighton, chatting to Emily, 29, who worked as an A&E nurse in the NHS for 2 years. Emily recently left her job in A&E, to break away from shift work and pursue a career where she was able to spend more time with her friends and family. She now works as a cardiac catheter nurse. Along with her new job, she and her husband packed their bags at the beginning of the year and moved to Brighton, to spend a year by the sea, pursuing a more balanced life.
We’ve met Emily in one of her favourite coffee shops, around the corner from her flat and just a stone’s throw away from the beach. We find a small table in the corner and Emily settles herself on a leather sofa, ordering a passion fruit mocktail. She’s excited to be out the house, having been in bed for the last few days with food poisoning (an outcome of some poor meatball reheating).
She’s agreed to chat to us today, about her time as an A&E nurse. Here she talks about what she loved about her job, her work-life balance, how it affected her relationships and gives us just a little insight into the everyday life of an A&E nurse.
Q. When did you decide you wanted to be an A&E nurse?
As a child I used to love wrapping people’s wrists and ankles up in toilet roll as pretend bandages, but I don’t think I identified that as wanting to be a nurse. Then whilst studying Health and Social Care at university, I helped out with jobs like chlamydia screenings. I found the course too theory-based though and just decided I wanted to be more hands on.
Q. How would your day begin?
Your shift is twelve and half hours, including two half-hour breaks. I would get up at 5.30am to be at work for 7am. Even if I’d tried to get a good night’s sleep I was still tired! Then, once you get into work you have your handover. Until then you don’t know where specifically you are going to be working, or who with, which can be slightly unnerving but is also part of the excitement.
Q. What’s an important trait to have?
It’s all about going with the flow. You aren’t in control of your time and you don’t have much of a say on how things are going to go. It could be quiet one minute and then turn completely upside down the next! You need good stamina and just have to be ready for it.
Q. What was your work/life balance like?
I love socialising and seeing friends and didn’t want to give that up, even with working 12 hour shifts. Near the end though I got burnt out. I was still going to lots of social events outside of work, even if I was exhausted. I just didn’t want to miss out. I wasn’t very good with looking after myself. I think I’ve basically been running on adrenaline for two years!
Q. How did your job affect your relationship with your friends and family?
Luckily, they were all really understanding. My husband got the brunt of it all. It was very rare for me and him to have a day off together and when I wasn’t at work I was falling asleep on the sofa at 8pm. He was very understanding though and took up a lot of slack: cooking and looking after me. I was lucky, I had a good home life so my only stress was at A&E. I think it would have been a real challenge if I hadn’t had that support network.
Q. What was your relationship like with other nurses?
Dealing with death every day bonds you, on a deep level. You are all being pushed to your limits and are more vulnerable, which means you get to know people very well.
Q. What did you like best about your job?
I can’t really pinpoint just one thing that I liked best! Everyday was different, I could never predict what would happen in a shift, who I would meet etc! This meant that every shift I learnt something, sometimes it was specific to nursing, and other times I learnt something about other people or about myself. The job pushed me beyond my limits and comfort zone, with the support from an amazing team who I was incredibly proud to work with. Also, I loved just having conversations with my patients and their loved ones. Sometimes intense, serious conversations and other times just completely lighthearted and heartwarming!
Q. What did you find hardest about working in A&E?
I think the hardest thing is just knowing that you are going about your regular day, but your patients are having some of the worst days of their lives. Plus you don’t have much processing time and you have to move from one patient to another. I found that when I’d had difficult back-to-back shifts, then things would hit me a bit harder.
Q. How did you process everything?
Well I married a counselor – ha! He’s always been a great person to talk to. I’d talk to other members of the team too and they were really supportive. Even though you don’t think you have time for it, people are there for you and will help cover if you need a moment to yourself. We were encouraged to write reflections, and if I had a really sad day I would write it down to help process. I also liked that I had a commute. It meant that I could have a cry in the car if I needed to and then I would try and switch off and relax when I got home.
Q. What was the biggest life lesson you’ve learnt through your job?
It probably taught me about my own resilience, as well as my own limitations. I learnt that I can push and be pushed so far past where I thought possible, but also that I’m not invincible. I relied on a lot of people to get me through working in A&E. I’ve learnt to be more aware of my own needs and the need for self care, even though my husband would say I still have a lot to learn about self care! I’ve now decided massages and drinking gin, whilst reading, in the bath is a must!
Q. How has being an A&E nurse shaped you as a person?
The sugary snacks definitely shaped me!! I think my confidence has definitely grown and I probably learnt to be a bit more assertive. Also learning how to ask for help and to not try and do everything on my own, because that just isn’t possible in A&E. I already loved people before working as a nurse, but I hope my empathy and compassion has grown for people. I think I felt like a lot of my identity was in being an A&E nurse. People make a lot of assumptions about you as a person, normally good ones! But now I’ve left A&E I’ve got a little gap to fill in my identity I think.
Q. Why do you think people tend to leave A&E nursing?
It’s all consuming. You have to love it to do it. It’s a physical and emotional sacrifice. I’d come home from a shift and my whole body was exhausted. The increasing pressure each year too can be very demoralising and I think you feel like you can’t deliver the level of care you want to for your patients.
Q. Were there ever days when you thought you don’t want to do this anymore?
Oh yes, many! Especially towards the end of working in A&E. It was too much stress and pressure and I just thought to myself, ‘Why am I choosing to be here?’ I had to gain some control and make an active decision to leave.
Q. Ultimately what was your reason for leaving?
I think one of the main reasons was I hated missing out on life. I like being social and going to church or having a Sunday lunch or spending time with my husband. Then, when I started thinking about leaving, I started realising how tired I was and the sad things just felt sadder. I do really miss it but I know for my own health it’s better having left.
Q. What are you most proud of?
I am incredibly proud of being a nurse. Looking after people in some of their toughest days and being able to help in anyway big or small! Then coming home and hoping I’ve made someone’s day either a bit better or even just a little less bad.