The Work-Work balance of nursing students

College can feel like a balancing act. In between lectures, assignments, society events, meetings and nights out, it can be difficult to strike a balance between college education and a life outside it. But it is a different story for student nurses.

According to the An Bord Altranais, the body regulating the requirements and standards of nursing courses, nursing students are expected to complete 4,600 hours of theoretical and clinical instruction combined. This is further broken down to 1,533 hours of theory and 2,300 hours of clinical placement. Placements can last from 14 weeks for general nursing, to 15 weeks for children’s nursing, with shifts as long as 13 hours a day. Placements can start as early as 7:30 am in the morning and can end at 7:30 pm or after 8:00pm at night. Student nurses find themselves having to balance their education against their work experience.

All student nurses interviewed felt that the ratio between theory and practice is good. It places a strong emphasis on the practical side of nursing. Placements allow the student “to know what to do in real life situations. And to be competent to do it.,” Soham, a general nursing student explains. “The theory classes only reinforce and give reason to your actions. They tell you the reasoning behind what you do . . . The theory tells you why you have to nurse a patient with a certain condition in certain ways. And what might be harmful for the patient.”

Ciara, also a general nursing student in DCU reveals that “the more time you spend on wards and in the hospital, the better it is for your professional development and confidence.” However, the way the placement and classes are done, at least in UCD could be different. “In UCD, it’s one semester [of] lectures (4 weeks of lectures for Children and General only) and the next is the 15 weeks of placement for everyone,” says a student children’s nurse who wished to remain anonymous. She and the friends she consulted would like the college work and the placements “more to be like Trinity where it’s more divided and less clumped . . . it’s roughly one month placement, one month lectures and continuously rotated like that.”

Another children’s nursing student (who currently has lectures and has to sit exams this summer) found that work experience definitely affects studying for exams. Many feel that the current system of student placements does not take into account those who work and those who travel long distances. “You’re so tired by the end of a day of placement,” she says. “It’s not only the work that tires us, most placement areas are hard enough to get to and require at least two hours on public transport (or driving) daily.”

Not only do long hours and long commutes affect study, but emotional exhaustion has an impact: “all day you have to be this neutral person who always stays strong for patients . . . at work the people whom you care for are top priority on your list even before you.” She adds that study time is eaten away by obligations outside the course such as volunteering or part-time jobs. Soham thinks that “the long hours also don’t account for the people commuting from long distances.” Ciara feels that “placement in general is very hard for students who work. I work four to six nights a week depending on our rota and during placement I go straight from the hospital to work during the week and work until 11pm or 12am at the weekends.”

Some nursing students felt that they are missing out on the “college experience” and getting involved in its societies and sports. The children’s nursing student acknowledges that they “have trouble joining clubs and societies, I can’t fully commit to college life because of placement always taking up half the year.” She explains further that “there’s too much placement and not enough college. The hours are too long in placement especially in first year where you have to dive into placement.” Ciara hasn’t joined any societies on campus citing that “their meeting(s) and activities clash with [her] college and work timetables.” She also felt that her “social life has been impacted greatly,” and “long hospital hours” play a factor.

With how hectic nursing courses can get with this precarious balancing act, student nurses draw support from each other and sometimes from academic staff on campus. The children’s nursing student found that they’re “quite lucky with my academic staff, they really want me to succeed and are always there if you need to talk to them, they’ll take time out of their schedule to really help you to their best of their ability.” Soham echoes her sentiments: “The CPC (Clinical Placement Coordinator) and personal tutor and student advisor are at your fingertips if an unfortunate event occurs.” Marie shares that they “are well supported by our tutors and lecturers as well as well as our on site clinical facilitators.”

UCDSU sabbatical officers expressed their supports the INMO campaign to stand with student nurses and midwives. In a press statement, Welfare Officer Melissa Plunkett stated: “As a student midwife I have seen the reality of hospitals both general and maternity being short staffed due to retention and recruitment. I have watched friends and family move abroad after graduating because the wage here in Ireland is not realistic. If you are a UCD nursing / midwifery student, undergraduate or postgraduate get in touch with your hospitals strike committee.”

Most interviewees also expressed that their classmates are a great source of support. Marie believes that nursing and midwifery students should support each other, “after all they are all working towards the same goals” and that “[they] lift each other up and support each other if [they] feel that [their] classmates are in fact struggling with balancing the theory and work experience.” However, for Ciara, there isn’t enough support apart from student nurses: “I feel that the only people to talk to about the struggle in balance is other student nurses because they understand. Outside of my peer group I don’t think there is really anyone who can help me maintain a balance in my life as a nursing student.” The children’s nursing student felt that her strongest support were her classmates because they’re “all pretty much going through the same thing, [they] understand the same language and [they] get when someone needs to talk to or simply needs a long hug.” In other words: “we’re family . . . there is love and support.”

If you too Stand with Nurse and Midwives please sign the StandWithUS petition at