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Elderly male patient is being wheeled out of the hospital and hospital staff have lined the hallway and are clapping in happiness for his recovery.

Nurse schedules: Pros & Cons of 12-Hour Shifts

6 min readApril, 25 2023

Working a 12-hour shift is standard for many nurses in a hospital setting, typically from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. These longer nurse shift hours mean greater continuity of care for patients, but are they advantageous to nurses? Explore the benefits and potential pitfalls of an extended nurse's schedule and other flexible alternatives.

Benefits of a 12-Hour Nursing Shift

There are many reasons why nurses work 12-hour shifts. The many positive aspects include:

  • More days off. Instead of the workforce standard of two days off per week, you get four days off. Nurses on 12-hour shifts typically work three days a week, and many prefer to run these days consecutively. This four-day gap allows you to recharge and spend more quality time with family and friends.
  • Less commuting. Fewer scheduled days mean less time on the road. Whether you get to work by car or public transportation, you'll save on gas or fares, especially if you have a long commute.
  • Better continuity of care for patients. Fewer patient handoffs will occur if your team only requires two shift changes daily. That reduces the potential for miscommunication or misunderstanding among team members and errors that could arise as a result.
  • Added financial benefits. If you work what some consider less-desirable nurse hours, you may see an increase in your paycheck. Some hospitals offer a night differential or wage increase for working the night shift, the weekend, or both. 
  • Uninterrupted flow. A 12-hour nursing shift runs more efficiently when you and your peers develop a consistent, uninterrupted rhythm.
  • Fewer overall hours. When you work three 12-hour shifts, you only put in thirty-six hours a week instead of the traditional forty hours. That gives you more uninterrupted quality time with your patients and more time for yourself. However, some hospitals require nurses to make up these hours by adding an eight-hour shift within a two-week period.

Drawbacks of a 12-Hour Nursing Shift

A female nurse is sitting in her parked car, her eyes are closed, and her head is back suggesting she is exhausted after a long shift.

Although it has many positive aspects, a three-days-on, four-days-off nurse schedule has potential pitfalls, such as:

  • Job fatigue. Working for twelve hours straight can be exhausting, and there are times when your shift may run longer. An extended workday and irregular hours, like the night shift, can lead to burnout. Many nurses prefer to schedule "weekends" between their 12-hour shifts. In this instance, a typical nurse's schedule may mean working Monday, Tuesday, and Friday and taking off the two-day periods in between.
  • Limited downtime on workdays. You'll have less time (and energy) to spend with family or friends when you work an extended shift. These longer hours could result in scheduling conflicts and missed family dinners and activities.
  • Extra recuperation time. Depending on your circumstances — whether you have kids, a long commute, or find adjusting to an extended schedule challenging — a 12-hour shift can be so draining that you spend more of your time off resting and re-energizing.
  • Weaker performance and increased errors. Studies show that when you work twelve or more hours, your diminished mental capacity due to fatigue can result in less attentiveness. That may lead to errors affecting patient safety and outcomes.

Alternative Schedules for Nurses

While longer shifts are standard at many hospitals, not all nurse's schedules involve 12-hour workdays. Depending on their work environment, a nurse's shift may look like this: 

  • Five eight-hour shifts each week: This more typical nurse's schedule is standard in private practices and outpatient settings, such as schools or physicians' offices. Nurses seeking a more conventional structure in their routine may prefer this setup.
  • Four ten-hour shifts each week: Like a three-day 12-hour schedule, this structure allows for more time off than a standard workweek since it gives you a three-day weekend.

If you decide 12-hour shifts work best for you, remember to keep your overall health and well-being in check. While at work, take breaks and stay nourished and hydrated to recharge your mind and body. And mentally check out once you've clocked out. These small actions can go a long way toward preventing burnout in nursing.


Images sourced from Getty Images

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