The Truth About Working "Only" 3 Days A Week
By Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC
As a nurse, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that it must be amazing to “only” work three days a week. The truth is, it’s exhausting. Utterly exhausting.
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 multi-tasking, and the lack of even a minute of personal time all take their toll.
Despite the long shifts, many nurses continue to want to work only three shifts a week. So why do nurses choose to work that many hours in a day?
The Advantages of 12-Hour Shifts
Shortened Work Week
Most likely, working three days a week means having four days off. If you have a long commute, this can be appealing and translates into less hours on the road. Those requiring child care will also prefer this option to a traditional 9-5 schedule.
Having four full days away from your nursing job can allow for greater enjoyment of your personal life and more time with family.
Most nurses are unable to spend time with their family after long shifts in the hospital. Other nurses work opposite shifts in order to gain more quality time with family.
Nurses are able to clump shifts together in order to have longer chunks of time off. Some nurses use this flexibility to work a per diem job, attend school, volunteer, or travel. Ideally, all nurses would love to be able to spend their days off relaxing and spending time with friends and family.
While working three shifts a week may seem appealing, there are definitely pitfalls.
The Disadvantages of 12-Hour Shifts
Let’s say you work at a hospital that allows you to pick your own schedule. Currently, you’re on night shift and you choose to work Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night. This means you sleep all day Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. At best, you have three days off that week. And more often than not you haven’t seen your family or friends the other days of the week.
Nurses spend days off sleeping, working, or catching up on neglected housework. The reality is that each work shift equals two days. Night shift nurses have to sleep before working and then again after work. One 12-hour shift has now turned into two days.
Does this sound ideal? And what about the night shift blues?
Feeling tired after night shift is normal, but the fatigue is usually accompanied by an emotional hangover.
An Argentinian study published in 2007 by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine journal found that night shift workers had significantly lower levels of serotonin than their day shift comrades.
Working day shift is just as taxing as night shift. After a long day shift, nurses are lucky to even sit down and eat dinner. Nurses collapse into bed only to wake up a few brief hours later to start the process over.
The problem isn’t the three shifts, it’s the length of the shifts. Most days for nurses are 16+ hour days. These endless hours are damaging to your health. An increased risk of depression, anxiety, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and even some cancers have all been researched and publicized.
In 2007, the World Health Organization classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen due to circadian rhythm disruption. While night shift can be damaging to your health, rotating shifts can be even worse.
According to Cleveland Clinic, some night shift and rotating shift workers can experience shift work sleep disorder (SWSD), which is characterized by excessive fatigue, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and trouble concentrating. It is important to recognize the above symptoms and seek professional help when needed.
What Does This Mean For Nurses?
Non-nurses will never fully comprehend why only working three shifts a week is utterly exhausting. But that’s okay because nurses don’t choose this profession for the schedule.
It’s important to recognize the disadvantages to working long hours and how to take charge of your health and happiness.
Some Tips For Survival
- Get plenty of sleep before work
- Eat a healthy, well balanced diet
- Perform deep breathing
- Take your breaks
- Take a walk off the unit if workload allows
- Eat healthy snacks
12-hour shifts aren’t going anywhere, and nurses will continue to want to work only three days a week. The hours are long and the work is exhausting but nurses continue to do it, first and foremost for the patient. The next time someone mentions that working three days a week isn’t that bad, ask them how many lives they’ve saved or changed in the course of their work week.
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Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC graduated with a degree in english and journalism before going back to nursing school. After graduating from Villanova University, she became a Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse. Currently, she works at one of the leading children’s hospitals in the country in the NICU, PICU, and CICU, as well as working as a Certified Breastfeeding Consultant.
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