Top Tips for Surviving the 12-hour Nursing Shift

NursingNovember 15, 2016

The 12-hour nursing shift is a relatively modern invention. In the past, 8-hour shifts were more common. But these days you’re likely to be required to work the more typical 12-hour shift. Some nurses love the change, others do not.

Each offers pros and cons. The pro-extended-shift camp points to better work/life balance, easier scheduling, less commuting, and better morale. 12-hour-shift cons tend to involve increased fatigue and potential negative health effects. In some workplaces, 12-hour shifts tend to extend even longer, depending on the efficiency of patient handoff during shift changes.

One recent study concluded that nurses who work more than 10 hours per shift are more prone to burnout and job dissatisfaction, compared to colleagues working ordinary 8-hour shifts. Patient dissatisfaction with nursing care also tends to rise with lengthening shifts, especially when nurses are on the job for 13 hours or more.

However, many nurses surveyed expressed satisfaction with 12-hour shifts. In any event, the 12-hour shift is a fact of life for nurses at many institutions, so you may have little choice but to adapt. Here are some tips to help you cope.

Dress strategically

Specifically, invest in sturdy, practical, comfortable footwear. When you’re going to be on your feet for the better part of 12 hours, the right footwear can make a world of difference. Forget about glamour; nursing shoes are all about practicality. Some old-timers even recommend taking two pairs and changing shoes in the middle of your shift. The change can help you feel refreshed again.

Some nurses also suggest wearing medical-grade compression hose, for their ability to boost circulation in the legs, ankles, and feet. Again, this is not about vanity. This specialized hosiery, which can combat muscle fatigue, may give you the edge your need to power through another exhausting shift. They’re pricier than ordinary hosiery, but may be worth the investment.

Refuel strategically

Depending on your shift, you may not have time for—or access to—healthful foods. Pack healthy snacks you can grab on your break. If the cafeteria will be closed, try to pack food to keep you going. Complex carbohydrates are also better for maintaining steady blood sugar levels, compared to the simple carbs you’ll likely find in vending machines.

Some long-shift veterans suggest eating small meals every three or four hours to keep your energy levels up. And remember to take the time to stay hydrated. When you’re really busy it can sometimes be hard to make time to take needed bathroom breaks. Accordingly, some nurses cut back on rehydrating. That’s not a good idea. Make time for drinking and urination. Good old water is best, but tea is also healthful. For recommendations regarding coffee, see below.

Make the most of days off

Some nurses have adapted to the 12-hour shift schedule by working at home on the day off before a three-day stint to get their household—and life—in order. Grocery shopping, some cooking, laundry, cleaning, etc. can all be accomplished so that the day off at the end of the three-day stint can be spent resting and catching up on sleep, with no pressure to “get things done” at home.

Caffeinate, or not

The choice to rely on the stimulating effects of caffeine to keep you alert and chugging along is up to you. Some nurses certainly swear by it. While old research often called into question the healthfulness of coffee and caffeine, newer research indicates that both can be beneficial, provided your caffeine habit doesn’t interfere with restorative sleep afterward.

Use your down time wisely

Many veteran nurses suggest making the most of any downtime during your shift. Whether it’s restocking for the next shift, catching up on charting, or helping out wherever you can, doing so will endear you to your colleagues. Plus, staying busy simply seems to help make the time go by more quickly.


Stimpfel, Amy W. The Longer The Shifts For Hospital Nurses, The Higher The Levels Of Burnout And Patient Dissatisfaction. 1st ed. ncbi, 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.