12-Hour Nursing Shifts Are Where It’s At

Does it Come as a Surprise that Nurses Prefer Twelve-Hour Shifts?

Twelve-hour nursing shifts have become the norm, 60% in non-ICUs and 80% in ICUs, much more common than 8-hour shifts, not to mention the 4, 10, or 16-hour shifts. Surprisingly, 86% of the nurses are happy with their schedule!

What are the standard shifts in healthcare?

Nursing shifts usually range from 4 to 16 hours, including 4, 8, 10, 12, and 16-hour shifts. One clinic in Ohio has a “Parent Shift” program that gives experienced nurses with young children the chance to work during the school day in 2 to 6-hour shifts.

Several clinics have also opted for twelve-hour shifts, scheduling seven days on and seven days off, or six on and eight off, but this is not common.

What happened? Why don’t nurses work the typical 8-hour work day? 

Eighty-four years ago, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established the 8-hour workday by law or 44-hour week and started shortening the nursing shifts as well.

Around 35 years later, in the 1970s, the 12-hour shift reappeared as an approach to management problems and took hold quickly since the nurses also liked the idea of only three or maybe four shifts a week. And the idea stuck. 

Now, 50 years later, the 12-hour shift has become the norm, although not the only option. A study of over 22 000 hospital staff registered nurses (RNs) from 577 hospitals showed that 65-80% of the nurses work 12-hour shifts, with the 8-hour shift weighing in at only 14-30%. Moreover, 86% favored their schedule, and 73% had other available work schedules and actively participated in developing their own timetables. 

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Why do nurses like the 12-hour shift?

Having a three-day workweek sounds great, but it is a double-edged sword.

The Ups and the Downs of the 12-hour Nursing Shifts


  • Only three shifts a week
  • Longer breaks between shifts, an option to provide more work-life balance or, in some cases, time for another job
  • More continuity with patients, less exchange of patient information from one nurse to the next, and therefore less possible miscommunication about a case among healthcare staff
  • The more people involved, the easier it is to get stats and information confused.
  • This can result in miscommunication, which may end up affecting the patient in negative ways.
  • Fewer commutes
  • Fewer days per week, the nurse may have to stay at work to do unexpected overtime, which is often mandatory.


  • The nurse on a 12-hour shift is eventually going to feel utterly exhausted, maybe so tired that they struggle to lift a patient out of bed or listen patiently to a troubled family member.
  • That may lead to mistakes and inefficiency, threatening the patient’s and the nurse’s safety.
  • Both longer shifts and working overtime are associated with lower quality care (such as less attention to pain control or even medication errors that can be critical or fatal) and more care left undone.
  • Burnout, compassion fatigue: Staff nurses who work longer shifts have a higher risk of burnout, although shorter shifts can also entail burnout.

No matter how long the shifts are, the job of a nurse is physically and mentally exhausting, so take into account other factors, as well as tactics to reduce the risks for the patient and the nurse. 

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Three other significant factors in nurse burnout are :

  • Working nights leads to poorer care quality and safety and more fatigue reported by the nurses.
  • The nurse: patient ratio significantly impacts nurse burnout and quality care. The fewer patients per nurse, the less stress and exhaustion, and the more focus, concentration, compassion, and connection with the patients.
  • Working part-time nurses report better quality care and patient safety than full-time nurses. You can take a break and find part-time jobs using the Nursa app.

How to Reduce the Risks of Longer Shifts?

Schedule and take 30-minute rest breaks. Please consult with the management to secure their understanding and respect for the breaks, although the timing may need to vary since no one can schedule all the patients’ needs.

Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep and adequate exercise, eat well, find time for things you enjoy, go outside and get some fresh air.

Talk with your family. Let them know what you are going through, laugh with them about an unexpected detail or comment, and help them understand the ups and downs of your work.

Try out your choice of the several available PRN or per diem shifts options near home, see which fits you best and garner the satisfaction of your work using the Nursa app! 

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