Is texting at work acceptable for nurses?

By | 2022-10-10T15:07:00-04:00 April 9th, 2019|20 Comments

A nurse reader asked what she should do about a personal text message she sent to her husband’s ex-wife.

The reader did not include what she sent the ex-wife, but whatever the message, her employer charged her with “improper telephone communication” for texting at work.

The reader’s supervisor told her the ex-wife personally came to the hospital to complain about the text and spoke with the supervisor, CNO, CEO and HR department.

The ex-wife also informed hospital administration about their personal family situation, which apparently included an “ugly divorce and custody battle.”

The nurse is concerned about being reported to the state board of nursing by the employer and whether her job is in jeopardy.

Hospital policies governing mobile devices and texting at work

It is not known what policy or policies this nurse’s employer adopted for the use of communication devices at work, but a breach of the policy occurred as evidenced by the improper communication charge.

This particular hospital might only approve the use of smartphones for patient care issues, communicating with other staff or seeking information about a particular diagnosis.

It is also not known if the facility requires the nursing staff only use a smartphone issued by the facility or if they are allowed to bring their own device to work. We also don’t know which of the two was used to text the ex-wife.

Regardless of these issues, the nurse who submitted the question has used her phone in a manner not approved by the employer.

As a result, it is quite possible she will be terminated. The nurse can grieve the termination if she believes it was unfair or not consistent with the employer’s policy governing employee conduct and smartphone use.

That may be an uphill battle. The text message, whatever its contents, was shared with the employer. Its existence cannot be denied.

Whether truthful or not, the ex-wife’s comments to the nurse’s administrators raise additional character concerns.

Professional licensure concerns about texting at work

There are several licensure worries this nurse faces as well. Initially, if she is terminated from her job, the state nurse practice act may require the employer or the nurse herself to report the termination to the board.

If this is required, the nurse will need to be honest and truthful about why the termination occurred. Because the use of a smartphone for personal reasons such as texting at work can cause a risk to patient safety, the board may determine discipline is necessary.

If the employer policy was not adhered to, this will be an additional point the board must evaluate.

The board also might see her behavior as unprofessional conduct likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public.

Although you may think an unprofessional conduct allegation would only be based upon your nursing practice, such as breaching nurse-patient confidentiality, signing on a work computer with another person’s code or negligent patient care, that is no longer the case. (You can read more about this topic in my blog,  “What can an RN do if compliance issues exist at a workplace?”)

Boards of nursing are expanding the definition of unprofessional conduct. Because you are a licensed professional, you have an obligation to be “professional” at all times, whether or not you are practicing nursing.

Thus, being convicted of a DUI or shoplifting, or texting your husband’s ex-wife while at work and stoking an ongoing feud, may result in you being professionally disciplined for unprofessional conduct.

Was this nurse’s texting at work unusual?

A 2014 study determined the frequency of non-work related use of communication devices. A group of 825 respondent members of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses met the study inclusion criteria and answered a 30-question survey.

The use of a personal mobile device while working (not during breaks or meal times) was reported by 78% of respondents. Meanwhile, 39% of respondents reported regularly sending personal emails and text messages while working. “Regularly” was defined as sometimes, often or always.

The study, “Non-Work-Related Use of Personal Mobile Phones by Hospital Registered Nurses,” also noted the frequent use of such communication devices can result in “distracted” nurses and, therefore, impact safe nursing care.

What you need to know about using your phone at work

Despite the fact this nurse’s cell phone usage for personal texting at work may not be unusual, her experience and the above study provide several points you should keep in mind.

  • Know and follow your employer’s policies on the use of communication devices and personal texting at work.
  • Think carefully before texting anything personal. This may place you in danger of losing your job or facing a board of nursing disciplinary proceeding, which might lead to you being considered unprofessional or unethical.
  • Know your nurse practice act and state nursing rules and what both say about the conduct expected of you as a licensee.
  • Analyze the language in the nurse practice act and state rules that specifically allow the board to take disciplinary action against you when not practicing nursing.
  • Conduct yourself as a professional at all times, whether on duty or not. Never expose your patients to an unreasonable and foreseeable risk of harm when using a communication device for any reason.

Take these courses on hospital policy:

Facebook: Know the Policy Before Posting
(1 contact hr)
The fundamental function of Facebook (and other social networking sites, such as Twitter) is allowing “friends” to share information. Friends are people who have agreed to communicate with and allow one another some level of access to personal information. Anyone with access to the Internet can join Facebook, the most popular social networking site, and connect with contacts. As of June 2015, Facebook claims more than 1.49 billion monthly active users. In healthcare, Facebook posts can influence the hiring process, violate patient privacy and result in termination of employment. This module informs healthcare professionals of the risks of social networks, which break down the walls separating our personal and professional lives.

The Nurses’ Bill of Rights: Do You Know Your Rights?
(1 contact hr)
The American Nurses Association (ANA) held a nursing staffing summit in Washington, D.C., in 2000. In a survey preceding the summit, 75% of nurses reported the quality of nursing care at their facilities had declined because of inadequate staffing and decreased nurse satisfaction. More than 200 summit attendees determined the need for a document to detail what nurses need and deserve to do the best for their patients. This need served as the impetus for the Nurses’ Bill of Rights, which was approved by the ANA board of directors in 2001. The Nurses’ Bill of Rights is a statement of professional rights rather than a legal document. It establishes an informal covenant between nurses and their employing institutions to help guide organizational policy and to focus discussions between nurses and employers on issues related to patient care and working conditions. Nurses can advocate more effectively for patients’ rights when they have critical information about their own rights. Not every nurse is familiar with the Nurses’ Bill of Rights or related rights described by various state boards of nursing and nursing associations in their position statements. This module provides an overview of them.

Increasing Your Nursing Influence Through Leadership: Boards!
(1 contact hr)
Nurses are influential and trusted. As a profession, nursing has been rated as one of the most honest and ethical for well over a decade. With the trust that nurses have merited from the public, what is a significant way for nurses to impact public and community health? Active involvement on boards! One of the goals of the significant The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health report was that nurses practice to the best of their capacity including pursuing leadership positions to improve healthcare in America. Nurses are key leaders that should be at the forefront of decision-making to improve the health of communities. Learn key info about why and how joining a board, commission, or coalition can help you influence public health with the skills you already hold! The Nurses on Boards Coalition has a goal: 10,000 nurses as members of various boards by 2020.

About the Author:

Our legal information columnist Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, concentrates her solo law practice in health law and legal representation, consultation, and education for healthcare professionals, school of nursing faculty and healthcare delivery facilities. Brent has conducted many seminars on legal issues and has published extensively in the area of law and nursing practice. She brings more than 40 years of experience to her role of legal information columnist. Her posts are designed for educational purposes only and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. 


  1. Mary April 12, 2019 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    We work 12 hour shifts sometimes back to back . Our families need to contact us and what we do on our breaks if we get them is our business . Did she get a break? Should someone ruin a nurses career because there’s a hostile divorce ?

  2. Michele N April 13, 2019 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    I left my phone in my locker when I was working in the acute setting. Everyone knew I was “at work” for 12+ hours. I never had time to socialize at work! If I did look at my phone it was on my lunch break (if I took one); I considered my lunch break my own time. I knew my kids were in a safe place and that would be the only reason for anyone to contact me (thru the ward clerk) – never happened! You can’t be wrapped up in your personal problems and provide top notch patient care.

  3. Stephen MacRae April 14, 2019 at 2:01 am - Reply

    This line alone, “Because the use of a smartphone for personal reasons such as texting at work can cause a risk to patient safety”, told me all I needed to know about this article. Patent crap. The same things were said 30 years ago about reading magazines at work. Texting is no different from a phone call, and can be less distracting due to the asynchronous nature of the medium. If someone is unable to set their phone down as needed to work then they need treatment for an addictive personality. However, patient endangerment? Bull shit…

    • JOY May 6, 2019 at 2:44 pm - Reply

      ON POINT!

  4. Elizabeth April 14, 2019 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    Glad I’m a retired nurse.

  5. Ruth Cooper April 14, 2019 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    I take offense with the accompanying photo of “the nurse texting” as a woman of color. From the get-go, the reader assumes by association that the nurse in trouble for texting at work is probably a black woman. Sends the wrong message.

    As for the ex-wife one cannot underestimate the lengths a “woman scorned” will stoop to.

    My two cents.

  6. Bill April 14, 2019 at 8:23 pm - Reply

    This is the one big problem with Nursing. The BRN in any state needs to stay out of a nurses personal life. Because they are the ones that grant the Lic for some reason they feel the have the right to know everything about a nurse. Even that, that has nothing to do with nursing. Question is this controlling issue because most BRNs are controlled by women.
    The Hospital if they had Any since of discretions should of told the Ex wife this is a personal matter and the hospital is not going to be part of it! And bud her a good day.
    The Lic Board Of Nursing is the worst profession in the world as far as professions go

  7. Lori Michelangelo April 14, 2019 at 9:38 pm - Reply

    Without the option to print this article is unfortunate. The lack of opportunity to share with peers is sad.

  8. JMN, RN ( retired) April 14, 2019 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    I am a retired RN however, this article is relevant to any professional health care worker since patient privacy has always been a concern since I was a student nurse, and this has only progressed to the use of digital devices. The problems regarding electronic devices is exponentially hazardous than chat in the nurses lounge or in the elevators. Once sent, a text or email is a most damaging piece of indentifiable evidence. I’ve know people in other professions who lost their jobs and some their careers for sending “inappropriate” emails during and after work hours. Some are easily seen as improper, but many times, as in this case example, the boundaries aren’t alsways so clear. As I understand it, the nurse in question obviously crossed that line or her administrators wouldn’t have reacted in such a vehement manner.
    I hope for her sake, her State Board of Nursing isn’t too hard on disciplining this nurse. If this is the first time she has been accused of improper conduct and has otherwise a clean record, I don’t think revoking her license is warranted.

  9. DR April 14, 2019 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    I didn’t read the entire article to be honest but if the nurse texted and did not violate privacy laws with release of patient info then she should be reprimanded, but not terminated. Being terminated over a texted is a bit over the top unless this is s pattern of behavior and she has been counseled previously. Also, it should not be used as a punishment for other nurses to not use their phones during their duty but as a teaching situation for what is acceptable at that facility.

  10. Christina April 15, 2019 at 3:31 am - Reply

    What if this is the only way your director or assistant director communicates with you during work on any subject matter and afternoon 430 or later to tell you the schedule as to what time to be at work could range from 500 -730 am until whenever sometimes

  11. HIRJI BHUDIA April 15, 2019 at 3:19 pm - Reply

    This does not seems appropriate to me as long as patients safety is maintained. Almost every one are using phone while on the duty. If hospital take action against onle one nurse this not a fair practice. and hospital may be sued for discriminations.

  12. Cynthia Pinkston April 16, 2019 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    Texting has become a big problem in nursing and not just with the nurses on the floor. Managers and many others it seems are always on their phones. I’ve been nearly threatened because I asked a fellow nurse to get off her phone and answer her patient’s call light. For me it makes for an unwanted work place when everyone is looking down and not conversing with anyone the whole shift. I do believe it is addicting for many.

  13. Jeani April 17, 2019 at 6:36 am - Reply

    While I do believe that personal business should not be conducted while at work and I agree that patient care is sacrificed if employees are taking that much time to actively engage in a family feud while at work, if this is an isolated incident and no one was harmed I think this discussion shows the depth of disrespect facilities/organizations have for nurses to even engage in this nonsense concerning a hostile ex-wife. I would rather question the individuals mental stability who would engage in a feud so far as to contact someone’s employer!
    Does this employer have no self assurance in their hiring ability? Or they are willing to lose a nurse over a hostile ex-wife?
    So many school meetings I have had to miss to stay and finish charting or accommodate short staffing. Even leaving my daughter waiting outside of the school and unable to have time to make a phone call on a 12 hour shifts with NO break or Lunch hour. I decided to FIRE some of my employers!
    It sounds like there must be more to the story. If not, this ridiculous scenario shows exactly why we have a nursing shortage. We seem to be disrespected and unsupported on every front. If we all have to start defending ourselves against ex-spouses in the workplace where are our priorities? This nonsense doesn’t occur in male dominated professions.

  14. Karen N April 19, 2019 at 5:33 am - Reply

    Another sad story. Nurses work long hours. We’re never suported. We dont even support one another. This obvisously was a personal matter. The hospital, ex-wife, and board of nursing should not be a factor. Its sad, nurses cant even be human. We’re some of the hardest working people and the most harshly punished.

  15. Olga April 25, 2019 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    I think for RN not being able to have lunch or breaks for ALL 12 hours shift puts her patients in more danger than taking a minute to text . Who analyzed what was my blood glucose level after not having meal for a whole day ?Being hungry and tired is more distraction then texting, and , honestly, there is no time to text or “play cards”

  16. Concerned Patient April 28, 2019 at 2:41 am - Reply

    Forrest General Hospital has night shift nurses just sitting around while your family member’s machines are beeping. I caught our nurse texting back and forth with someone while he was suppose to be working. April 12,2019 night shift nurse Garrett.

  17. JFB May 5, 2019 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    I used to turn off my cell phone and store it in my locker when working but after being a victim of credit card fraud multiple times, I now carry it in my pocket for alerts.

  18. Carol May 13, 2019 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    I kept mine in a coat pocket and checked it before I went home. At lunch if I got one, also. My family knew to call the hospital and reach the desk if I was needed. I worked with people who would sit there and text while charting. While I understand checking on kids who are home alone, it was excessive sometimes and very unprofessional. I also thought about the germs on the phone. Yuck! I never spoke up, not my place. But I felt like they did not have their heads in the game when they were texting. I could not even talk to my coworkers because they were “busy” texting people outside of work.

  19. El August 14, 2019 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    It really makes me feel uncared for when staff are distracted by those phones.

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