How many hours does a nurse work per week? It really depends; there are many different types of nursing shifts. You can work 5x8s, 4x10s, and even 3x12s. I, myself, choose to work 12-hour shifts.
Why? The perks! I actually love working 12-hour shifts. Well, it’s more like thirteen hours, but that’s beside the point.
The typical response when people discover a nurses’ work schedule is “Wow, that’s a long day” paired with a wince. I’m inclined to a similar response when I learn that people work from early morning until night, five or six days a week (sometimes working long shifts with little work-life balance).
Nurses’ schedules are by no means a walk in the park. Though, what may appear to be nothing but grueling actually has quite a lot of upside. Twelve-hour shifts usually translate to three-day work weeks, but a majority of nurses are not frolicking through life as four-day weekend warriors. We’re do-ers, which means we optimize this unique work schedule in order to maximize our lives (and sometimes recover from the previous three shifts!).
What Are the Perks of a 12-Hour Shift?
I have to work three twelve-hour shifts a week. My unit is somewhat unique because we self-schedule, with some requirements such as four weekend shifts per 4-week scheduling period. This has huge implications on the flexibility to travel.
I can not work for over a week without using any sick time or paid time off. Almost every non-nurse I explain this to is completely baffled. Let me explain.
I can schedule myself to work Sunday, Monday, Tuesday (we’ll talk about working 3 shifts in a row at a later date) to get in my three shifts for the week. This would mean not working Wednesday-Saturday. I then sign up to work Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the following week to satisfy my three shifts. In this scenario, I have off Wednesday of the first week until Thursday of the second week.
This is probably one of my favorite aspects of my nursing lifestyle. It’s enabled me to easily travel all over the world, visit family and friends back east, and take advantage of weekday prices, discounts (matinee, anyone?), and availability. (These perks kick in double if you're a travel nurse!)
I’ve only ever run into two problems: first world problems.
- I’m always wanting to go somewhere new, because I ‘can’.
- My husband gets frustrated when I suggest an extra long weekend trip, month after month. Find a best friend or partner that has the same kind of flexibility! If only he was a nurse too…
Weekdays off are a game changer. Although sometimes when I’m sitting in my favorite cafe at 10am sipping my matcha and eating my avocado toast, I’m baffled at how many people are also doing the same thing. I think to myself “There is no way all of these people are nurses.”
There are far more perks to weekdays than scoring the best sunny window seat at your favorite cafe. Weekdays off mean easily scheduling and snagging last minute appointments, grocery shopping without losing your mind, or going to the post office or DMV in under three hours. I now refuse to go anywhere near these places, especially Costco or a mall, on the weekends. I feel snobby when I think to myself “God how do people live like this?”
Weekends at Work
Weekdays off mean weekends on, which can be a tough pill to swallow. My FOMO would creep up as I’d scroll through Instagram Friday morning seeing caption after post reading “TGIF” or “Happy Friday” because I’d have to work Saturday, Sunday, or both. I would be up before the sun to head to work while my husband snoozed in bed.
I’d get a "good morning" text hours later, his day just lazily starting at the same time I would be halfway done with my second breakfast and third coffee.
It’s tough not to feel sad about missing out on an event with friends that was planned after I had made my schedule six weeks prior. But there are benefits to working weekends.
Weekend shifts are generally slower and quieter (PSA: I am the least superstitious person ever and have zero problem saying the “Q” word. Yes, QUIET). The slower pace can be conducive to spending time with co-workers, having more time to dedicate to patients and families, and alleviating some built-up burn-out. I’ve personally found that these type of shifts have been necessary to renew my sense of faith in the high-stress profession we’ve chosen.
I’ve also decided that my relationship has benefited enormously from the ability for my husband to have the occasional weekend day entirely to himself, at home in his own space (like I do on weekdays).
Three Days, Not Five
I lived more than 50 miles away in San Jose when I first started my job at UCSF. I commuted for about seven months before we made the move to San Francisco. It was do-able because of the three days a week and the timing of the 12-hour work shift, enabling my commute time to be outside of rush hour. I would never choose that commute again now that I live less than two miles and fifteen minutes away.
But for many, that is the reality and it works! Many of them commute much further than the fifty miles or 45-60 minutes it typically took me. They live far beyond San Francisco but can do so because it’s three days a week, not five.
One of them lives over two hours away! She works two shifts per week and clusters her days to four in a row to work Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. She commutes and stays with her in-laws in a neighboring city to live and work. This schedule gives her ten days off in-between, or requires her to do this every 10 days.
Now this may not make sense in other parts of the country, but because nurses are so highly compensated in San Francisco, it’s kind of a no-brainer. And when I think about it, is kind of a fun dual-lifestyle.
On the other hand, one of the per-diem nurses I work with lives in Idaho. And works in San Francisco. Per-diems are only required to work 4 shifts per month, and so if these are clustered, she can essentially do what my other co-worker does, except fly rather than drive. That’s one way to rack up the airline miles!
4. Productivity & Continuity
Since I’ve started working a more office-lifestyle (well, actually who I am kidding, it’s a start-up lifestyle), I simply cannot believe the way a day can fly by and how unproductive I can feel. At the hospital, my day gets going right at 07:00, I know exactly what I need to get done (which, alas almost always deviates or changes) and although there are often interruptions, it feels quite continuous.
My lunch break is scheduled at a specific time that I need to adhere to if I want to get my full break and I must jump right back into productivity as soon as the resource or charge nurse hands me back my phone. I know that I have 12 hours to get time insensitive things done and that when the clock strikes 19:00, I have to be ready to handoff my assignment if I want to get out on time.
Responsibilities and tasks are very clear-cut. Shifts are continuous, and absolutely productive.
It can feel very different in an office or start-up environment. There are meetings, the ability to socialize, the flexibility to take your lunch break (or coffee or snack breaks) when you feel tired, burnt out, or like you need a break. You can shift your focus from one thing you’re working on to another and can be prone to distractions around you or online.
This contrasts to the hospital environment that is designed to be conducive to continuity and productivity. There is rarely any room for deviation, distraction, or even necessities. Especially if you’re back the next day with the same patient assignment. Though multiple twelve-hour shifts with the same patients and families could be for the better or worse…
5. Quality of Life
The quality of life derived from working twelve-hour shifts ties back to all of the aforementioned points. It comes mainly in the form of self-care, social flexibility, perspective, and balance. Most jobs within the nursing profession have the benefit of ‘when you’re on, you’re on, and when you’re off, you’re off.’
There really aren’t many other professions that are embedded with this same benefit. There is numerous research about the downside of professionals bringing their work home, not having a hard stop to their day, being consumed by work-related thoughts and dilemmas, and never really “turning off.”
Of course, some of these still do apply to us nurses. But they don’t have to! Proper boundaries, limits, and coping enable us to leverage this unique aspect of our jobs to live our best lives.
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