July 28, 2022

Working 12 Hour Nursing Shifts: Pros and Cons

By B&SC Blog Team

Working 12 Hour Nursing Shifts: Pros and Cons

Twelve hours of any activity may be exhausting, let alone 12 hours of hurriedly dashing around while providing care to vulnerable patients. So, why do nurses subject themselves to these long hours?

For many, the answer is the benefits outweigh the risks. Not every nurse feels that way, of course. Many employers do offer a choice, especially in a hospital or care facility. Sometimes, it isn’t a choice, though. For example, acute care nurses typically work 12-hour shifts.

If you are considering a career in nursing, it’s essential to understand the concept of the 12-hour shift, why it matters, and the pros and cons involved.

12-Hour Shifts: How They Work?

Traditionally, staffing shifts in hospitals involve dividing a 24-hour day in half. For nurses, that means 12-hours on and 12-hours off during their workweek. Nurses doing 12-hour shifts tend to follow a paradigm of four off, three on. In other words, a nurse would work three 12-hour shifts and then have four days off.

When you consider the average person will spend eight of those 12 hours asleep, that’s a lot to ask. These long shifts have a significant impact on the lives of someone with a family, social life, or a person going back to school.

A twelve-hour shift can occur outside of nursing, as well. It is something you might see in law enforcement, call centers, or manufacturing. People living and working on site might have 12-hour shifts as well, such as an oil worker or a person employed on a cruise ship.

The long shifts can provide a more efficient work environment for employers, though. For nurses, it can also mean better work-life balance. It is a hotly debated topic, primarily because there are both pros and cons to this schedule.

How Does Scheduling Work with 12-Hour Shifts?

Often, scheduling varies based on the needs of the employer and the preference of the nurse. Some nurses prefer the one-day on, one-day off schedule. On Monday, they may go to work in the morning and leave 12-hours later. The next day, they can rest and relax. Others prefer to stack their days. That would mean they work three days and then have the next four days off consecutively. They may choose to work days only, nights only, or rotate their shifts, too.

The Pros of Working a 12-Hour Shift

Clearly, 12 hours is a long day for nurses, so why do it? There are plenty of benefits for a nurse willing to do 12-hour shifts.

1. Time Off

The most obvious benefit is having more time off. Imagine having a weekend that lasted four days. It is a practical choice for someone with childcare issues or just someone who prefers not to squeeze all their off time into two days and evenings.

You also have extra time to do those things that are hard to fit into your schedule when working 8-hour shifts 5 times a week. For example, you have time to go to the grocery store, run errands, make an appointment, or go back to school.

2. Fewer Patient Handoffs

The 12-hour shift benefits both the nurse and the patients, too. A 2017 study conducted by The Joint Commission found that as much as 37% of hand-offs lead to errors like:

  • Missed medication
  • Inaccurate doses
  • Symptoms left undocumented

With eight-hour shifts, nurses have three handoffs in a 24-hour day. Maintaining 12-hour shifts cuts that number to two handoffs. That often means fewer errors and better patient care and outcomes. The longer shifts improve continuity for patients, too as they have the same nurses with them for a longer time.

3. Less Time Commuting

A 12-hour shift gives nurses more control over their schedules and how long they spend commuting to and from work. A 2020 report published by A Center for Health Workforce Studies states that nurses often don’t work in the same community they live. Fewer work shifts mean they spend less time and money going back and forth.

The Cons of Working a 12-Hour Shift

Although there are plenty of perks that come with the 12-shift concept, there are some downsides to it, too. The most obvious is that 12-hours is a long time to spend treating patients. Nurses on 12-hours shifts must deal with fatigue and mental strain.

For many, it will mean less sleep, too. This is especially true for those working a rotating shift. It is hard to adjust the body’s internal clock to ensure you can fall asleep.

1. Long-Term Health Risks Associated with Long Work Shifts

It is much harder to lead a healthy lifestyle if you are working 12 hours a day. There is little time for exercise, for example. You may also end up eating on the run, making eating healthy more challenging. When you combine the fatigue, lack of sleep, and other problems with 12-shifts, the risk of long-term health problems can increase for:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Back problems
  • Foot problems
  • Headaches
  • Mental exhaustion

You can offset some of the mental health and physical issues on days off, though. For example, you can exercise and eat right on the days you don’t go to work. You can also do things like meditate to help you relax.

The more self-care practiced during those days off, the better. However, recovery means staying in bed on those days off for many nurses, so they lose many of the benefits of the long shifts, anyway. Once they feel rested, it’s time to go back to work.

Burnout can be unavoidable for some working 12-hour shifts and it can affect performance. Burnout has a mental, physical, and emotional impact, whether you work the night shift, day shift, or both.

2. Social Life Impact

Many like the 12-hour shifts because they give them more time to socialize. The downside is, though, they may have no one to socialize with on their days off. Often friends and family who work traditional schedules may have different days off. Since these nurses have little free time on workdays, their social life may actually suffer from 12-hour shifts.

3. Potential for Errors

Fatigue and burnout may increase the potential of medical errors. A 2004 study published in Health Affairs found that 12-hour shifts increased the likelihood of a nurse making a mistake-three times as much if they work 12.5 hours or longer. Unfortunately, 12-hour shifts rarely last just 12 hours. Nurses must do hand-offs and other tasks that can take them past their scheduled shifts.

All nurses eventually make a mistake. It’s inevitable, but they learn from them. You will be less likely to learn if you suffer from mental exhaustion.

Start Your Healthcare Journey Today

Nursing, no matter how long your shift, is a noble profession-one that helps many. If you think nursing might be the right career path for you, consider the programs available at Bryant & Stratton College.

Maybe the idea of 12-hour shifts doesn’t appeal to you. You can consider other healthcare career paths. Our healthcare degree programs at Bryant & Stratton College can help you explore employment choices in both clinical and non-clinical settings that go beyond nursing, such as administration or medical management. Learn more about Bryant & Stratton College’s healthcare career programs today.

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