Welcome to guest blogger Donna Cardillo!
Donna Cardillo, MA, RN
12-hour shifts have become the norm in hospitals and most nurses love them. One can work 3 days and have 4 days off, there is one less major shift change to contend with, and patients have fewer names and faces to get acclimated to in a 24-hour period. It all makes sense on the surface.
But is working 12 consecutive hours in a fast-paced, high stress, physically and mentally demanding environment a good idea? Does it support the clear judgment, quick thinking and reflexes, and life and death decisions that we must make in the acute care setting?
I know a few nurses who do three 12-hour shifts a week, at least two of the shifts on two consecutive days. Some nurses do three consecutive 12s. Factor in commuting time, shift transition (it can sometimes take 1-2 extra hours to actually finish up), time to get ready for work—never mind making time (if at all) for family or self and they’re lucky to get 5-6 hours of sleep if that. Compound that with the fact that many nurses no longer take meal breaks or even short breaks during their shift to rest and refresh because they believe they don’t have the time or they don’t make the time. This is a recipe for disaster.
A recent survey commissioned by CareerBuilders shows that nurses are one of the top ten professionals who depend on coffee to get through their workday. Is it acceptable to have to ply ourselves with stimulants to do our jobs? Caffeine is an addictive substance. It stays in our system for up to 10 hours and can cause insomnia or can reduce the effectiveness of the precious little sleep we get.
I once heard from a nurse who was irate when a new director of nursing came to her facility and ended the practice of working two 16-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday. I don’t even want to think about that nurse’s ability to do her job well, especially on the second day. Fortunately, the practice was stopped against protest but I know it still exists in other facilities.
In addition to the issue of our fitness to practice while on duty, what about our degree of alertness while driving to and from work while working 12-hour shifts? Then there’s the issue of the long-term wear and tear on our physical and mental health. We are not machines and we are not indestructible. Yet we are pushing ourselves, and those who work for us, beyond the limit of what humans are capable of short-term and long-term.
Many studies have been done over the years to support my assertions and my concerns. A recent study done by the University of Maryland concludes that the odds of making patient errors increases three-fold when nurses work 12-hour vs. 8.5-hour shifts. But how many studies need to be done, how many patient errors need to be made, how many nurses need to get sick, injured, burnt out or worse before we consider alternative work schedules? The health and safety of both nurses and patients hangs in the balance.
Donna Wilk Cardillo is the Career Guru for Nurses and “Dear Donna” columnist for Nursing Spectrum, NurseWeek, and www.nurse.com. Donna is also an ‘Expert’ Blogger at DoctorOz.com. She is author of The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses, Your 1st Year as a Nurse, and A Daybook for Beginning Nurses. Ms. Cardillo is creator of the Career Alternatives for Nurses® seminar and home-study program. You can reach her at www.dcardillo.com.