EXCLUSIVE: nurses divided over 12-hour shifts

A Nursing Standard survey has shown that 50% of nurses found longer shifts to be acceptable or desirable

A Nursing Standard survey has shown that 50% of nurses found longer shifts to be acceptable or desirable

  • Nursing Standard podcast prompts survey into nurses' attitudes towards 12-hour shifts. 
  • Academic findings show longer shifts lead to poorer outcomes for patients and staff.
  • Nurses advised to minimise the potential for harm during longer shifts.

Picture: iStock

Nurses remain split over the effect of 12-hour shifts with a slight majority favouring the longer work patterns, a straw poll by Nursing Standard has revealed.

A survey, which attracted more than 550 responses, was launched in the wake of a discussion on the Nursing Standard podcast regarding a rise in nurses leaving their posts to achieve a better work-life balance.

Posted on the RCN Members Facebook page, the poll showed 50% of the 567 respondents rated 12-hour shifts as 'great', 'okay', 'fine if you can choose' or 'okay if not every shift'.

Research findings 

It contrasts with consistent academic findings against 12-hour shifts, including a doctoral study earlier this year that found nurses working 12-hour shifts were 40% more likely to call in sick than those working shorter shifts.

In 2015, a National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (Wessex) study found a 26% increased chance of reporting high emotional exhaustion when nurses worked shifts of 12 hours or more.

Yet in the same year a study by the National Nursing Research Unit that found those working 12-hour shifts reported being equally or more satisfied with their working hours than nurses working shorter shifts.

Longer shifts 'a bad idea'

Our survey showed 47% of respondents thought the longer shifts led to ‘burnout, stress and exhaustion', were a 'bad idea' or could run into being more than 14 to 15 hours long.

One nurse wrote: ‘I love my 12-hour shifts. Because I'm only working three or four days a week I use less fuel then I would working shorter shifts.

‘My annual leave goes further and I usually only work every other weekend.’

Another nurse said: 'Working 11 short-shift days in a row was utterly exhausting. Changing between lates and earlies was tough.

‘I find planning my day from morning until evening much less stressful and much more suitable for patients and their families, who don't need to gain rapport with a new person every few hours.’


But those who disliked 12-hour shifts said they affected family life, meant they had fewer breaks and for some were a reason to leave the NHS altogether.

One nurse warned: ‘The trouble will 12-hour shifts is people can do stupid things on them – for example, be encouraged to give medications for the next shift.

‘The powers that be think they should get their money’s worth but don’t understand the greater cost of accidents – until they happen.’

Minimising risks

Responding to our poll, University of Southampton chair of health services research Peter Griffiths said: ‘The academic findings are quite clear – longer shifts are associated with adverse outcomes for patients, including poorer experience, lower quality and even increased mortality, and for nurses they are associated with reduced job satisfaction, burnout and sickness.

‘Of course this doesn’t mean that every nurse who works a 12-hour shift is at risk of burnout or putting patients at risk or that negative outcomes are inevitable.

‘I think that there is a lot that we don’t know about the preferences of nurses but it’s clear that they work for some people. However, I think we still don’t really know if some people can work them without suffering any decline in performance or what would work best for the majority.’

He suggests the following measures to minimise harm during 12-hour shifts:

  • Proper breaks with real ‘down time’ during the shift.
  • Be sure to rest and relax between shifts.
  • If there is a benefit from extra days off in terms of rest and recuperation, then it must include that rest. Do not, for example, do bank or agency work on your days off.

Listen to the Nursing Standard podcast for more discussion and submit your thoughts to or use the twitter hashtag #nspod.

In other news

This is a free article for registered users

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this? You can register for free access.