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How to avoid the health issues that come with 12-hour shifts

Learn to control the negatives to fully enjoy all those positives that come from working this tour

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Three cheers for 12-hour shifts? They do have some wonderful advantages — ideal for nurses who love to travel, spend more time with family or cut down on child care expenses. And the extra-long shifts have other pragmatic pluses, like fewer required uniforms, fewer parking hassles and commuting when traffic isn’t snarled.

But for nurses, there are some pretty hefty drawbacks to working 12 hours at a stretch. According to a study from Claire C. Caruso, Ph.D., registered nurse, "long work hours increase the risk for reduced performance on the job, obesity, injuries and a wide range of chronic diseases."

And nurses know all too well that 12 hours is an incomplete label. It only describes the time spent at work, not the commute and preparation that can sometimes leave literally just six or seven hours between 12-hour shifts — total.

As Kathleen Colduvell RN, B.S. in nursing and B.A., notes in Nurse.org, "Twelve-hour shifts generally turn into 13- or 14-hour shifts. Forget dinner plans or the gym. In fact, on any workday, nothing else gets accomplished. Yes, the hours are long, but it's the work that's exhausting. The constant on-the-go mindset, the mental preparation for any scenario, the endless multitasking, and the lack of even a minute of personal time all take their toll."

But 12-hour shifts aren’t going anywhere, and most nurses wouldn’t want them to anyhow. So you’re left with the option of controlling the negatives to fully enjoy all those positives. Experts who work with nurses or are nurses themselves have this advice for their fellow long-shift workers:

Plan like you work 12 hours. Combatting the detriment of 12-hour shifts leaves little room for being in denial. You can’t just wish away the potential for exhaustion and the other health drawbacks and proceed to eat, sleep, party and interact with your family members as if you only work eight hours at a time. In fact, Caruso’s study highlighted this conclusion: “The key strategy to reduce these risks is making sleep a priority in the employer’s systems for organizing work and in the nurse’s personal life.”

And remember, while the activity tweaks and self-care can be annoying, it's not just your health that's at stake. As Rose O. Sherman, an RN who holds a doctorate of education, summarized on the Emerging RN Leader blog, "We know from other research that nurses who work 12-hour tours average only 5.5 hours of sleep between tours, and are three times more likely to make errors as opposed to those on 8-hour tours."

Practice good sleep hygiene. This is not going to be welcome news to nurses who work 12 hours and want to live a semblance of a normal life on days off. But to get the best sleep all week long, you really need to try to get in bed at the same time every day, 12-hour shift or not, according to nurse practitioner John D. Cary of Athens Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep Medicine. “Don’t watch television in bed and try not to eat a few hours before you go to bed since that will keep you awake and you need your sleep,” he advises. “Wind down at the same time every day. And even though it’s super tough at the end of a long shift, don’t fill up on caffeine from coffee, tea or sodas right before you leave for home. Because you’re going to need to sleep when you get there.”

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