Discourses of anxiety in nursing practice: a psychoanalytic case study of the change-of-shift handover ritual

Nurs Inq. 2008 Mar;15(1):40-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1800.2008.00387.x.


This paper reports on the findings of a study that considered how anxiety might function to organise nurses' practice. With reference to psychoanalytic theory this paper analyses field notes taken during a series of nursing change-of-shift handovers. The handover practices analysed met all the criteria for a ritual, as understood in psychoanalytic theory, and functioned to alleviate anxiety in the short term while symbolically expressing a forbidden and unknown knowledge. We argue that the handover ritual contained certain prohibitions, yet allowed some expression of the prohibited knowledge in a disguised way. The prohibition concerned how the patient affected the nurse, that is, moved the nurse to love and hate the patient. We argue that this prohibition is expressed, in disguise, via the displacement of affection for the patient onto other nurses and through negative stereotyping of some patients. We also argue that these prohibitions of the handover mirror broader prohibitions within nursing, and thus the rituals of the handover become an expression of how professional prohibitions are enacted in practice. We conclude that the important implicit function of the handover ritual is to keep anxiety at bay, thereby enabling the nurse to commence practice rather than being immobilised by the effect of potentially overwhelming anxiety.

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / prevention & control
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Communication*
  • Continuity of Patient Care
  • Cooperative Behavior
  • Group Processes
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Negativism
  • Nurse's Role / psychology
  • Nurse-Patient Relations
  • Nursing Methodology Research
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital / psychology*
  • Patient Care Planning
  • Psychoanalytic Interpretation*
  • Repression, Psychology
  • Stereotyping
  • Taboo
  • Victoria