Back in the days when women never went without a hat or gloves, a 10- to 12-hour shift for nurses was the norm, according to the Travel Nurses Now website. Eventually nursing shifts, like those of many other industries, were shortened to eight hours. The pendulum swung once more, however, and today 12-hour shifts are the norm again in nursing. Although there are many benefits to 12-hour shifts, there are also some disadvantages, both for patients and nurses.
Night Shifts and Health
Back when eight-hour shifts were the norm, night nurses often kept to the same schedule even on their two days off, but a nurse who works 12-hour shifts normally only works three days a week. For night shift nurses, this can mean switching from sleeping during the day while working to sleeping during the night on days off. The repeated changes can upset the body’s biological rhythm. Rotating shifts have been found to increase the risk of heart disease and breast cancer, cause stomach problems and negatively affect pregnancy, according to research reported in the July-August 2008 issue of "Cardiovascular Journal of Africa."
Child Care Challenges
For nurses with children, finding a doting sitter to match those 12-hour shifts can be a challenge. Typical child care providers offer care during normal business hours and operate Monday through Friday, according to ChildCareNet.org. Nurses may need to create a patchwork of care, such as a neighbor picking the child up from day care and watching him until his parent gets home. Nighttime child care can be even more difficult to find. Some parents work opposite shifts to assure that one of them is always home with the children -- good for the kids, but not exactly optimal for keeping that spark in the parents' relationship.
Risk of Errors
Pulling longer work shifts can increase the risk of both errors and near misses in nursing. In a study reported in the July 2004 issue of “Health Affairs,” researchers reported that hospital staff nurses regularly worked longer than their actual schedules. Approximately 40 percent of the shifts were longer than 12 hours. A tired nurse is more likely to make a mistake -- the researchers found the risk of errors was significantly increased if the nurses worked overtime, worked more than 40 hours a week or worked longer than 12 hours at a stretch. Over half of the mistakes were medication errors.
Potential for Injury
Continually putting in longer hours can be tough on a nurse. Nursing is a physical job; nurses regularly lift or turn patients, move equipment and spend most of the shift on their feet. According to the “Health Affairs” publication, research has found that nurses who work 12-hour shifts have an increased risk of needle-stick injuries and are more susceptible to musculoskeletal problems. They are also more likely to sustain work-related injuries or to have automobile accidents when driving home at the end of a shift.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.