Nursing shifts of 12-hours seem to have become the norm, replacing the 8-hour shifts that were common a couple of decades ago. According to a recent study from the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Nursing, 65 percent of the 23,000 nurses surveyed worked shifts of 12-13 hours in length. The study offered up some contradictions, though. It found that nurses reported increased fatigue and burnout as the length of their shift increased – yet, at the same time, a large majority is very satisfied with the 12-hour shift, which reduces the number of work days in a week to just three.
So which is the ideal situation – working an 8-hour shift, five days a week; or working a 12-hour shift, three days a week? If you’re trying to weigh job offers from multiple hospitals, this is a factor you might want to consider. Here’s an examination of the pros and cons of working a 12-hour shift.
Potential benefits of a 12-hour nursing shift
- A shorter work week. Most likely, you’ll work three days and be off for four days. If you have a long or difficult commute, this can translate into fewer hours spent on the road. It may also allow you to spend less on child care, depending on your circumstances.
- Enhanced work-life balance. This is the benefit that nurses cite most often in surveys about their shift preferences. Having four full days away from the job can allow you to enjoy your personal life to a greater extent or spend more time with family. Some hospitals find that this in turn translates into better staff morale, less staff turnover, and reduced absenteeism.
- Flexibility. With larger chunks of free time at your disposal, you may find you have the flexibility needed to work a second job, attend school part-time, volunteer in a meaningful way within your community, or even fix up an old house.
- Better continuity of care for your patients. It’s a well known fact that communication errors often occur at shift changes. These “handoff errors,” as they are sometimes called, can put patients at risk. It’s possible that when there are two shift changes in a day instead of three, patients will benefit from better continuity of care.
Potential pitfalls of a 12-hour nursing shift
- Fatigue. Working more hours per day may mean that you get tired or lose your focus toward the end of your shift – potentially making you more prone to errors. And even if you feel you can easily handle a 12-hour shift, what happens when your shift extends into overtime and becomes a 16-hour shift? It’s probably advisable, when working 12-hour shifts, to avoid overtime, consecutive shifts, and shifts that rotate between day and night.
- No down time at all on work days. When you add up the time you’ll spend at work, commuting to work, and handling your day-to-day responsibilities at home, you may find that you have no time at all left for yourself on work days. You may also find it can be harder to line up child care when you’re working extended hours. It’s possible that some nurses feel they can strike a better work-life balance by working shorter days, five days a week.
- Patient dissatisfaction. The University of Pennsylvania study cited above found a correlation here. The hospitals with large numbers of nurses working longer shifts also had higher percentages of patients who reported that nurses were less responsive to their needs. The study did not suggest reasons for the increased patient dissatisfaction, but it may be related to fatigued nurses.
Regarding burnout and fatigue, the length of the shift may not matter as much as the workplace environment. Adequate nurse-to-patient staffing ratios are key – as is a culture that respects nurses’ time off and does not rely on overtime as a staffing strategy. Empower yourself with knowledge through an online RN to BSN or RN to MSN degree. American Sentinel University is an innovative, accredited provider of online nursing degrees, including programs that prepare nurses for a specialty in case management, infection control, and executive leadership.