10 Tips for Nurses Working 12-Hour Shifts

a nurse getting ready to work 12 hour shift
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Working for 12-hours straight might sound tedious for regular folks, but it’s a norm for nurses and other healthcare providers.

If you’re new to nursing, then our tips and tricks help you survive these long hours without a hitch. 

Here are the top tips for nurses working 12-hour shifts:

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Tips for Nurses Working 12-Hour Shifts 

1. Get Prepped 

First and foremost, never leave anything for the last minute.

Whether it’s ironing your uniform or packing your bag―it’s better to get these things done a day prior. 

Here’s a basic checklist you could follow:

  • Wash and iron your uniform the day before.
  • Fill up the tank. 
  • Pack healthy snacks and homemade meals.
  • Fill up a water bottle to stay hydrated throughout your workday.

This way, you won’t feel stressed out when you’re getting ready for work.

There’s been plenty of times (more times than I can count, unfortunately) that I saved doing something I should have done early and instead left it for when I’m going to work.

For example putting gas in the car.

From experience it makes for a more stressful morning. So try to do everything you can the day before work.

Also, planning early allows you to beat the traffic and reach the hospital on-time.

Plus, arriving early allows you to go through your patient list before taking report.  

Pro Tip:
Create a to-do list and tick off the tasks as you go.

2. Stay Organized

a messy nurses desk
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The 12-hour timeframe is enough for things to go haywire when you’re not organized.

The messier your workstation is, the more time you’ll spend searching for things.

Plus, it’s easier to forget minor tasks after you’ve dealt with an emergency call.

At times like these, keeping things in order gives you a sense of stability. It makes things manageable even if something unexpected happens. 

Here are a few tips to stay organized:

  • Maintain a daily planner so you don’t miss tasks.
  • Arrange your paperwork in some kind of pattern (e.g. alphabetically) to ensure everything stays in one place.
  • Set reminders when you’re assigned a particular task later in the shift. 

These little things will make your shifts slightly less chaotic despite the unpredictable routine. 

Pro Tip:
It’s okay to go off schedule when the situation demands it. You can always check the planner to complete the assigned tasks when you get free.

Pro Tip:
Whether it’s through your phone or smart watch setting reminders or alarms are great ways to make sure you don’t forget important tasks you need to do. Just make sure they’re HIPAA compliant.

A general video on tips for staying organized.

3.  Be a Busy Bee

An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.

We’ve all heard this one.

There will be shifts where every minute feels like an eternity. That’s why it’s better to stay busy throughout the shift instead of staring at the white walls for hours.

It’s especially true for night shifts because at times they aren’t as busy as daytime schedules. 

How can you stay busy?

You can always ask your supervisor if there’s anything that needs to be done during the slower days or assist a coworker who has more on their plate.

This initiative could help you earn brownie points, and cultivate a better relationship with your colleagues. 

Here are a couple of other things you can do:

  • Spend quality time with your patients.
  • Organize or rearrange your workstation.
  • Answer calls to schedule new/follow up appointments.
  • Stay updated with medical news and the latest in evidence-based practice. 
  • Bring a book along to read during your free time.
  • Do crosswords or word puzzles for mental stimulation.

In short, make every moment at work count. Not only does this kill the boredom, but it also ensures you spend your day productive despite the slow day.  

With that being said, you should also take a break from time to time. We deal with this in the next tip.

Pro-Tip:
Being helpful to your supervisor and your teammates when you have down time might not be what you want to do but remember, you’ll look good to your employer and you never know when you’ll need your nurse coworkers to help you.

4. Catch a Breather 

Are you a workaholic?

Many nurses utilize their break time to work. Some like staying busy while others do it to lighten their workload.

Unwittingly, multitasking during breaks leads to a major burnout by the end of the shift.

You’ll also feel more tired each day if you continue to work non-stop for consecutive 12-hour shifts.  

Also, according to experts, eating at your desk lowers productivity levels and increases stress. The best idea is to change your routine frequently (source). 

Here’s how you can take advantage of your free time:

  • Start a hobby like crocheting/knitting to stay busy during spare time.  
  • Socialize with your coworkers to get your mind off work.
  • Go outside to eat or for fresh air (if it’s possible). 
  • Catch up on your sleep by taking a power nap.
  • Meditate in a quiet corner to get some much-needed stress relief. 
  • Listen to podcasts or stream a 20-minute episode of your favorite series. 

The main idea is to switch things up during the shift so that it doesn’t feel mundane.

Also, utilizing your break time properly ensures you don’t lose steam during the last haul of your schedule.

5. Catch up on Those Zs  

a nurse sleeping in bed wearing an eye mask
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Studies show that nurses who take naps (15 minutes to 3 hours) stay more alert and active in comparison to those who don’t (source).

The same paper discusses the significance of sleep for better patient care for nurses.

Alternatively, ‘adaptive sleep strategies’ improve mental health and decrease health problems in nurses (source). 

These researches state that sleep deprivation tends to affect your performance negatively.

You also risk making erroneous mistakes in patient safety due to fatigue.

Thus, it’s important to maintain a proper sleep cycle in spite of the 12-hour shift if you wish to avoid mishaps.

How? 

We understand that working in a fast-paced environment means staying on your feet at all times. 

There are also rules and regulations against napping in some healthcare facilities. Thus, taking a power nap during the shift is completely off the table.

Nonetheless, you can still maintain a proper sleep cycle by resting the day prior.

Also, take precautionary steps to ensure you do get rest during that time. 

Here are some sleeping tips you can follow: 

  • Develop a sleep routine to ensure your sleep cycle doesn’t get disrupted despite the unconventional work shift (source).
  • Get earplugs, eye masks, and blinders to eliminate distractions (source).
  • Don’t drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks before going to sleep (source).
  • Avoid using digital devices during nap time as they tend to keep you awake (source).

Apart from this, you can download an app that tracks and monitor your sleep pattern.

Then, implement suggested changes to enhance your sleep cycle. 

Regardless of your shift timings, try to sleep for 7-9 hours each day.

Also, make sure you get uninterrupted sleep within those hours. That way, you’ll wake up feeling refreshed and energetic every time you clock in.

Tips for better sleep from Mayo Clinic.

6.  Consume Well-Balanced Meals 

Raise your hand if your meal typically comprises of leftovers and assorted goodies from the vending machine.

No matter how great the cafeteria food is, some nurses don’t go beyond their floor for sustenance.

The best way to avoid this is to plan your meals ahead of time or pack a quick snack from home.

Both options ensure you stick to a healthy diet despite the crazy routine. 

Of course, this plan would only work if you eat mindfully.  

We suggest you choose a healthier alternative when you cook.

For instance, opt for proteins and fewer carbohydrates and sugars. You should also add fiber and fruits into the mix to balance your meal.

What about snacks?

Sometimes you’ll have to skip your lunch or break time due to an emergency. In those situations, you may have to look at healthy snack options.

These include (source):

  • Fruits and vegetables (e.g. carrots, apples, and bananas) 
  • Granola bars 
  • Greek yogurt 
  • Nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, and cashews)
  • Low-fat muffins 

In short, choose snacks that are high on energy and low on calories.

7.  Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.

a nurse filling up a water bottle
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Let’s get it straight―you don’t want to get dehydrated by the end of your 12-hour shift. 

As a nurse, you already know that dehydration leads to dizziness, fatigue, and nausea (source).

These are symptoms you can’t possibly handle while you’re at work.

That’s why it’s important for you to stay hydrated throughout the shift.

You can do this by:

  • Keeping a personal water bottle with you at all times.
  • Downloading a hydration app to remind you to drink during your shift. If you don’t want an app, you can set an alarm to drink water every 30 minutes throughout the 12-hour schedule. 
  • Getting a marked water bottle to monitor your water intake.
  • Adding variety to your daily intake by sipping herbal teas, flavored water (sugar-free), and coconut water.

In short, make sure you get an adequate amount of water into your system.

This, in turn, will help you stay alert and active at all (work) hours.

I’ve been historically bad at drinking enough water during my shift.

The end result is I’ll have a really bad headache by the end of it. → Do better than me because by the time the headache shows up it’s really hard to get rid of it.

General video on the benefits of drinking water.

8. Keep Moving 

Can’t make it to the gym due to your busy professional life?

No worries!

You can still manage to stay active on and off duty if you want.

The most effective way to do this is by doing a 15-30 minute cardio before you head to work.

If that seems impossible, you can try counting your steps during the day with the help of an app.

Typically, a person should take 10,000 steps per day to stay fit (source). You can complete this goal during your rounds and other daily tasks.

If your daily steps are still low try going for a walk during your break time or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

These small steps will eventually add up.

As a result, you’ll face fewer health issues (e.g. obesity, stress, and fatigue). 

Related Article: How Nurses Are Finding Time to Work Out

9. Dress for Comfort   

Most healthcare facilities have a set uniform for nurses.

Others might allow you to dress casually as long as you adhere to the dress code.

In both cases, you should wear something that makes moving around easier for such a long shift.

Here are a few styling tips you should follow:

  • Don’t wear rings, necklaces, and other accessories (or take them off while you’re on-duty). 
  • Bring a spare set of scrubs or uniforms in case of an accident.
  • Avoid wearing light colors because they are prone to stain easily.
  • Slip-on compression socks to reduce the chances of getting sore feet.
  • Wear athletic shoes if your job involves a lot of movement. Check our top nurse shoe picks if you need help.
  • Make sure your shoes fit snugly and are comfortable for long walks.

In other words, whatever you wear must be comfy and practical. 

Related Article: 5 Benefits of Wearing Compression Socks

10.  Work with Your Team 

nurse coworkers working together
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As a nurse, you already know how important teamwork is for patient care and safety. You’re required to stay in the loop with other healthcare providers while you follow a treatment plan.

A strong camaraderie makes it easier for you to survive the tough days.

Thus, you should strive to build a good rapport with your team.

Related Article: How to Interact with Nurse Co-Workers Who Are Difficult to Deal With

11.  Don’t Forget to Strike a Balance

Lastly, managing home life with professional obligations might feel like a struggle. 

This is especially true for people who work on nights. 

Here are a few things you can do: 

  • Plan quality time with friends and families on your days off.
  • Try to stay connected virtually by video calls and messages during breaks.
  • Set reminders to ensure you don’t miss important dates (e.g. birthdays and anniversaries)

The best way to navigate through this is by making sure your friends and family understand your current situation. 

They need to understand that it’s hard at times to keep up with social schedules due to your work schedule. 

But in the end, figure out a way to make it up to your loved ones for the lost time.

Related Article: Comparison: 8 vs 12-Hour Nursing Shifts

Final Thoughts

In the end, organization, effective communication, self-care, and health are the building blocks of nursing.

These things ensure you don’t crash and burn due to the hectic routine.

As a result of doing all of those things, it will have a positive influence on how you deal with your patients. 

Do you have more tips for nurses working 12-hour shifts? We’d love to hear them.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I prepare for a 12-hour shift?

Working a 12-hour shift is hard but you can prepare for it by following the tips we’ve outlined in this article.

Do Nurses have to work 12-hour shifts?

No, nurses do not have to work a 12-hour shift if they don’t want to, they just need to find and apply to jobs that do not require 12-hour shifts.

It’s important to note that 12-hour shifts are commonplace for nursing jobs in many areas and specialties.

So an unwillingness to work 12-hour shifts might be difficult depending on the area the nurse lives in and what specialty the nurse is planning to work in.

Is working 12-hour shifts healthy?

No, working 12-hour shifts can be difficult for employees as research is showing 12-hour shifts can be detrimental to the health of those employees (source).

Why do nurses have 12-hour shifts?

There are some advantages to working 12-hour shifts such as better continuity of care for the patient and more time off for the nurses in between shifts.

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