Andrew Wettengel / Thursday, October 13, 2022 / Categories: Work World


Long shifts are part of working in healthcare, and nurses are no strangers to long, strenuous days and nights on the job. Working long hours can lead to health problems, such as fatigue and injury, and be daunting for nurses, leading to burnout and compassion fatigue. With these issues, some nurses may decide to leave the field altogether.

For those who aren’t familiar with this lifestyle, it can be hard to comprehend how nurses are able to work these long shifts, but there are many ways for nurses to cope with long hours.

What Is the Longest Shift a Nurse Can Work?

The nursing field is known for its long hours, but just how long are most nurses on the clock? For hospital nurses, these shifts are often between 12 and 16 hours to ensure proper care for all the patients within the facility. In some cases, nurses work long shifts for up to six days in a row. While this can bring in good money, it can also come with some negative effects.

The health effect of working 12-hour shifts—or even longer ones—can be dramatic for nurses, especially because they are on their feet all day. However, there are a few things that nurses can do to help make it through those long hours.

8 Tips for Surviving Long Nursing Shifts

Many young nurses need advice for long shifts. Those who haven’t worked long shifts don’t truly understand the effects of 12-hour shifts on nurses. Here are a few practical tips for surviving long nursing shifts.

  1. Plan Ahead

The best way to prepare for a long nursing shift is to plan ahead and not leave tasks until the last minute. If you can accomplish tasks the day before a long shift, it is best to do so. Here are a few things that we recommend nurses do the day before starting a long shift:

  • Put gas in your vehicle
  • Get your uniform ready
  • Pack your meals and snacks
  • Prep a water bottle
  • Shower
  • Make sure your phone is charged

For some nurses, this list may be longer or shorter, but we recommend keeping a to-do list that allows you to check off tasks as you accomplish them. This way, you can see that you are making progress in ensuring the next day goes as smoothly as possible.

  1. Get Organized

Once you get to work, it is important to get yourself organized and set up for a successful shift. Get all paperwork ready, make sure you know your responsibilities for the day, and review charts to ensure you are as prepared as possible since you will likely be in a chaotic work environment.

For many nurses, a smartwatch is a great tool to help with reminders and provide alarms for critical tasks. Smartphones and smartwatches are a great way to replace a paper planner, which doesn’t provide reminders and can be difficult to carry around with you during your shift.

  1. Stay Busy

It is much easier to make it through a long shift when you are busy. For most nurses working long shifts, keeping busy will help make the time seem like it passes more quickly. If you aren’t busy, you can talk to your supervisor or other nurses to see where you can help pick up some slack for other members of your team.

Other common tasks that nurses can do in their downtime include:

  • Organizing your workstation
  • Calling patients to schedule appointments
  • Calling patients to follow up after appointments
  • Researching new medical science
  • Spending quality time with your patients
  • Reading a book or doing a crossword
  • Taking a break

Preventing boredom at work will help you make your way through long shifts—especially overnights—more easily.

  1. Take Breaks

Nurses often have a lot to do, and it can be hard to pause for a break. But for many nurses, just a short break can go a long way in keeping up with the pace of a 12-hour nursing shift. While many nurses try to work through breaks to help lighten the workload, there are definitely benefits to taking a true break.

Working non-stop through a 12-hour shift will likely leave you feeling exhausted and burnt out. Even eating your lunch at your desk can lead to increased levels of stress and loss of productivity. Instead, take a true break and walk away from your workload for a few minutes, at least a couple of times per shift.

You can use your breaks to:

  • Eat
  • Take a power nap
  • Socialize with coworkers
  • Meditate quietly
  • Listen to a podcast or watch a TV show
  • Start a hobby
  • Take a walk or spend time outside

Regardless of how you decide to spend your break, it is enough to just take your mind off of your work for a few minutes.

  1. Maintain a Healthy Diet

You’ve probably heard nurses joke about living off of coffee, soda, energy drinks, or other caffeinated beverages, and for some nurses, this may not be far from the truth. While caffeine can help with maintaining energy levels throughout a nurse’s shift, maintaining a good diet is key to staying healthy and energized.

It can be hard to squeeze in a real meal while on a long shift. But packing nutritious meals and snacks that you can eat quickly is critical for nurses. Veteran nurses recommend eating small meals every three to four hours to help with blood sugar stabilization and energy. Some even recommend keeping small snacks in your pockets just in case you don’t have a lot of time to stop and eat.

Hydration is another huge piece of the puzzle for nurses. Make sure to keep your water bottle nearby and filled. For some nurses, staying hydrated is a challenge, especially because it often requires more time for bathroom breaks on your shift. However, your health is just as important as the health of your patients, and you can’t help others if you are sick yourself.

  1. Dress Comfortably

The most crucial aspect of a nurse’s attire is footwear. Comfortable footwear is critical to ensuring a nurse can make it through a long shift on their feet. Practical shoes make a world of difference, and finding the perfect pair for your comfort will help you on your journey through a long shift. Nurses will also need to replace their shoes more frequently to keep their feet, back, and joints healthy long-term.

Some nurses will recommend other articles of clothing to help with comfort on the job. Compression hose or socks can help improve circulation in the feet, ankles, and legs. A light jacket or cardigan can also help keep you comfortable when it is chilly at work. Choose something with pockets, as they will allow you to keep more on your person on busy days when breaks are hard to come by, such as snacks, your phone, extra pens, etc.

  1. Enjoy Your Downtime

Nurses need downtime, and spending that time focusing on yourself is critical to avoiding burnout. “Me time” can help nurses recover from long, hard shifts. Find what helps you unwind and relax, and dedicate at least some time to these activities each week. For some, this might be an at-home self-care routine. For others, spending the day at a spa, a couple of hours at the gym, or going to a sporting event may just be what is needed to recover after work.

Use your downtime to explore your surroundings. Remember that you may never take a position in this location again, so list all the things you want to do while you are there and cross them off when you aren’t working. If you have friends in the area, ask them to join you as you truly experience life in that part of the country.

  1. Get Help from Your Team

The best part of working on a team is that you can have each other’s backs. When you need help getting through a long shift, talk to your teammates for inspiration and encouragement. Often, you will find that they are more than willing to find a way to give you a break or take some of the load off—but you need to be willing to return the favor on days that you can, since this will help you build trust with other nurses while you are on assignment.

Your supervisor or coworkers may have a lighter load on any given day than you—and vice versa—so asking for help could get you the few minutes you need for a food or restroom break.

If you are looking for your next travel nursing assignment, OneStaff Medical is here to help. Our recruitment team can help you find the perfect location for your next assignment. Contact us today at 877-783-1483.

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1 comments on article "HOW DO NURSES WORK LONG SHIFTS?"

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Quinn Jones

Great Article!

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