In this article, we’re going to compare 8-vs. 12-hour nursing shifts.
In the past, the eight-hour nursing shift was the norm. However, over the years, it has become standard practice for many hospitals to keep nurses on the job for 12 hours.
There are proponents for each side but is there one that’s better than the other?
Here is a closer look at what eight-hour supporters tout as well as what their 12-hour counterparts have to say about the debate.
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8-Hour Nursing Shifts vs. 12-Hour Nursing Shifts
Shorter Shifts Are More Manageable
The first argument in favor of 8-hr shifts is that they’re much more doable.
Considering that nursing is a totally hands-on job, the thought of lifting patients, administering medications, and checking charts without a break in between already sounds exhausting.
Eight hours definitely seems as if it’s enough and that’s precisely what proponents of this shorter shift think.
8-hour shifts have been the norm in various industries for decades, and it has become something that most people are accustomed to.
Adding four more hours onto that can seem to be a recipe for disaster.
The Shorter the Shift, the Fewer the Mistakes
Getting more days off is nice, but nurses who work eight-hour shifts are less likely to make mistakes, leading to overall higher patient satisfaction.
As a nurse’s day goes on, he or she becomes more fatigued, and that can lead to errors in patient reports and other procedures.
In health-care, even small mistakes can lead to negative outcomes.
An eight-hour shift is long but manageable so nurses can adequately and accurately attend to their patients.
That being said, nursing is downright tiring so even those with shorter shifts are still prone to committing errors.
It’s all about getting adequate rest and taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Longer Shifts Grant More Flexibility
Most of those who strongly support the 12-hour shift cite work-life balance as their primary motivating factor.
Working 12-hours means having just three work days a week as opposed to five for eight-hour shifts.
This means more time to spend with family and friends as well as greater wiggle room when creating a working schedule.
Nurses can swap hours with their colleagues more easily, and they can enjoy longer stretches of days off from work.
The 12-hour shift is likely to get more support from working moms as they find that they have more time with their kids when they have just three working days instead of five.
More days off also means more chances for attending events, finishing at-home projects, and catching up on rest.
We’ll also point out here that there are plenty of nurses who are just fine with the flexibility the eight-hour workday grants them.
They can work an early-morning shift or go to their job later in the evenings and still make it work out for them and their families.
What we mean by flexibility here is that when a person only works three days a week, he or she has more opportunities to take day trips or have a weekend getaway than someone with the traditional eight-hour schedule.
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12-Hour Shift Allows for Scheduling Loopholes
For example, a nurse who typically works 12 hours can use his or her paid time off to take two days off.
He or she can schedule this in a way to coincide with his or her normal days off, resulting in a nice work-week vacation.
Five days off in a row grants him or her a much-deserved mini-vacation where he or she can travel out of town or just kick back and relax at home.
These longer shifts also might make it easier for nurses to swap work schedules if need be.
Furthermore, having more days off in a typical week makes it easier for 12-hour shift nurses to schedule appointments and get more errands done.
If they worked a typical eight-hour shift five days a week, there would be far fewer opportunities to make it to the dentist or bank because they’d be working during their business hours.
On the other hand, if they worked 12-hour days three days a week, they’d find it much simpler to run these errands on a day off.
Summary of the Argument:
- 12-hr shifts compared to 8-hour shifts give you longer breaks in between you can use to travel and spend time with family and friends.
12-Hour Shifts Result in Less Hand-Off Confusion
When a nurse is finished with his or her shift, he or she has to report to the nurse who is taking over.
He or she will have to let the new nurse know what the patient is dealing with, what he or she has done for the patient during the shift, and what the patient needs next.
These details can get muddied the more they get shared with other people.
That’s why 12- hour shifts tend to experience less confusion and errors during hand-off reports.
The result is more continuous care and attention for the patients, which they’ll definitely notice.
Whether a person is in the emergency room or having a lengthy hospital stay, he or she can feel that awkward change when a new nurse comes in to take over.
He or she is already uncomfortable being there, but now he or she needs to get a feel for a whole new person.
Moreover, nurses who work 12 hours have more time to complete their daily tasks and fulfill them properly.
Summary of Argument:
- Longer shifts like twelve-hour shifts mean fewer nurse handoffs. The end result is a better continuity of care for the patient.
Eight-Hour Shifts Can Be More Convenient
Overall, those who work for eight hours a day tend to have a more “normal” schedule that coincides with individuals in other areas of employment.
This is especially convenient for those with children because they can choose to work while the kids are at school.
A 7-3 or 9- 5 shift means that they can get their work done and then be home to spend the evening with their families.
Their more traditional schedules can also make it easier to get together with friends or plan nights out.
Compare that to those who work for 12 hours straight.
By the time they’re done with work, all they want to do is go home and sleep.
If they have kids, they might be totally absent from them on working days.
While they do get more full days with no work, on the days that they are on the job, they’re exhausted and burnt out.
In addition, most 12-hour shifts require nurses to work at least a couple of weekends per month.
On the other hand, eight-hour shift nurses can be home for weekend fun with the family.
Summary of Argument:
Working an eight-hour shift means your schedule will be like most people including your children's school schedule. The end result is it will be easier to plan times to spend as a family or with friends.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions related to comparing 12 and 8-hour nursing shifts.
Are 12-hour shifts better than 8?
No, 12-hour shifts are not better than 8-hour shifts. Either shift can work out well. It really does depend on the person when it comes to choosing the right shift.
Even though the eight-hour workday has been the norm even for nurses, there are many professionals who prefer the 12-hour days.
It just boils down to how the schedule works for their lifestyles and families.
For instance, a working mom might find that she appreciates having those four days off a week instead of two.
She has more full days with her children, and she cherishes that time together.
On the other hand, another working mother might prefer the traditional eight-hour shift because she’s able to go to her job while the kids are at school and be back in time for dinner.
There’s no right or wrong answer here and different people are going to have a range of preferences.
Which shift, 12-hr or 8-hr is better for preventing nurse burnout?
We cited a research study above that shows staff nurses who work longer shifts have a higher risk of burnout. It should also be noted that both shifts can lead to burnout.
Each individual has different needs and preferences, and the truth is that both 8-hour and 12-hour shifts can lead to serious nurse fatigue and nurse burnout.
The job of a nurse is physically and mentally tiresome, so it takes a dedicated self-care routine to keep up with healthy lifestyle habits and behaviors.
Which shift is better for the patient?
We cited research studies above that says nurses who work long shifts are more likely to make mistakes compared to nurses who work shorter shifts.
That aside both 12-hour and 8-hour shifts can affect the patient.
It’s not just timing that plays into the care of the patient; it’s nurse burnout, attentiveness, and how well they manage their own time and self-care routines.
That being said, there are different ways that these shifts can affect a patient.
First of all, 12-hour shifts are super long so even though the same nurse is staying with the patient for a longer period of time, he or she is eventually going to feel very fatigued.
That can lead to mistakes and inefficiency.
He or she may be so weak and tired that he or she struggles to perform routine tasks, such as lifting a patient out of bed.
This is a threat to both the patient and the nurse’s safety.
Likewise, the eight-hour shift has its drawbacks because it requires multiple nurses to exchange the same information about a patient.
The more people that are involved, the easier it is to get stats and information confused.
This can result in miscommunication, which could end up affecting the patient in adverse ways.
Moreover, just because a nurse is working fewer hours doesn’t mean that he or she is going to feel more rested or be immune from work-related fatigue.
The bottom line is that healthcare professionals need to prioritize sleep, healthy eating, and stress management no matter how many hours they work.
Do most nurses work 12-hour shifts?
12-hour shifts are very popular among nurses especially new nurses. With many nurses citing many of the advantages we listed above. The journal of advanced nursing found that the majority of nurses work 12-hour shifts (source).
They also found about half of the new staff nurses surveyed work overtime (mandatory and voluntary).
Hopefully, this article helps you when deciding between an 8 or 12-hour nursing shift. Let us know what your preference is and why below.
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