How many hours should you work?

The issue of work life balance has been a hot topic for a little while now, but it has particular relevance in our household.  You see my partner is a nurse, and therefore she has to suffer through 12 hour shifts that generally leave her exhausted and stressed on her days off.  In conversations between us the shift patterns often crop up, and the feeling is that despite them leaving many nurses exhausted, the majority seem to support them.  Suffice to say however, despite this apparent support, staff turnover remains very high, with the subsequent costs of hiring/training new staff.

It's a theme that crops up in a research paper published at the end of last year by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.  The research of 23,000 nurses found that not only did 12 hour shifts lead to burn-out amongst nurses, but it also resulted in poorer quality care according to the patients themselves.  Despite this however, they found that most nurses supported the shift pattern, in the belief that it afforded them more time off.

It's the first study of its type anywhere in the world, and it uncovered that shifts of ten hours or more resulted in nurses being 2.5 times more likely to suffer burnout, with 7/10 patient outcomes being significantly affected by the longer shifts.

"Traditional eight-hour shifts for hospital nurses are becoming a thing of the past. Bedside nurses increasingly work twelve-hour shifts. This schedule gives nurses a three-day work week, potentially providing better work-life balance and flexibility," said Amy Witkoski Stimpfel, PhD, RN, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at Penn Nursing. "When long shifts are combined with overtime, shifts that rotate between day and night duty, and consecutive shifts, nurses are at risk for fatigue and burnout, which may compromise patient care."

In hospitals which had higher proportions of nurses working longer shifts, higher percentages of patients reported that nurses sometimes or never communicated well, pain was sometimes or never well controlled, and they sometimes or never received help as soon as they wanted.

"Nursing leadership should also encourage a workplace culture that respects nurses' days off and vacation time, promotes nurse's prompt departure at the end of a scheduled shift, and allows nurses to refuse to work overtime without retribution," noted Dr. Witkoski Stimpfel. "These types of policies that facilitate manageable work hours can contribute to the development of a healthier nursing workforce, prepared to manage the complex care needs of patients and their families."

The interesting thing is that people seem to want to work fewer days and longer hours.  An article posted on the BBC this week trumpeted the value of working a 4 day week, but doing 10 hours per day rather than the 8 that is the norm today.

The comments section was telling, with many supporting such a shift pattern, with the prevailing view being that it would allow you to regain control of your life and not be a slave to work, despite both 4 and 5 day patterns requiring 40 hours per week of dutiful attention.

How many hours is enough?

Adi Gaskell is a management writer.