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Top 10 tips for coping with short staffing

Laskowski-Jones, Linda RN, APRN, BC, CCRN, CEN, MS; Toulson, Karen RN, CEN, BSN

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doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000298012.99140.46
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1. Prioritize your assignments

Examine your assignments and categorize nursing activities as high, medium, or low priority. Start with the high-priority activities. These include critical assessments and interventions, such as tracheal suctioning. Next, tackle medium-priority duties, such as teaching patients. Many low-priority activities can be delegated to unlicensed assistive personnel (UAPs), family members, or volunteers.

2. Organize your workload

After receiving report, determine the care your patients will need. Gather equipment and supplies before entering a patient's room. Give support personnel a list of any missing items and ask that they get them right away.

3. Be a team player

Make a rule that no one can sit until everyone can sit. If you finish your work before others, pitch in. Teamwork creates bonds between co-workers, makes difficult situations tolerable, and enhances patient safety.

4. Use UAPs wisely

Know what you can and can't delegate to UAPs according to regulations governing nursing practice in your state and facility job descriptions.

5. Recruit additional talent

Engage other personnel, not just nurses, to distribute the workload more evenly. The unit clerk, for example, can help you communicate with others.

6. Communicate effectively—and nicely

Communicate clearly so that everyone knows the plan for surviving the staff shortage. Safeguard the feelings and dignity of all team members. Assess your own communication style: Do you ever speak in a demeaning or condescending way when you're harried? Supporting each other and being kind smooths the way for everyone.

7. Inform and involve nursing administration

Inform your nurse-manager when staffing is inadequate. He may be able to call in staff, offer overtime or incentive pay, reallocate staff, or employ staff from an agency. He may also help fend off time-consuming special requests.

8. Encourage family participation

When family or significant others are visiting, ask them in a friendly way if they want to help, without mentioning the staff shortage. If they're amenable, offer suggestions such as assisting with meals. Be sure to thank them.

9. Take care of yourself

During each shift, try to take a break from the caregiver role, even if only briefly. If you can't leave the unit, take a moment for yourself in the break room. To stave off burnout, eat a balanced diet and get enough rest and exercise.

10. Maintain a positive attitude

Attitude is everything. If you go into a challenging situation with a positive, can-do attitude, you can achieve great results. In contrast, a negative outlook can bring down the morale and performance of the entire team. Positive self-talk is an important first step. Tell yourself and then the team that you can survive and even thrive in challenging situations. Reframe the staffing shortage to generate camaraderie and a sense of mastery over apparent obstacles. In time, positive thinking and creative problem solving will become habits for the entire staff.


Laskowski-Jones L, Toulson K. Top 10 tips for coping with short staffing. Nursing2005. 34(12):61, December 2004.
    Squires A. Documenting short-staffing: A delicate balance. Nursing2004. 34(9):24, September 2004.
      © 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.