The Health Risks of Missing Your Break


Nurses continuously missing their breaks can lead to devastating health risks for them and their patients.

I hear far too often that nurses don’t have time to take a break during their 12-hour work shift. If they do get a break pressing questions or patient concerns interrupt it. I can attest that I have worked many 12-hour shifts where I never truly took a break. I may have grabbed a quick bite of food or kept snacks in my pocket, but it was rare that I could leave my unit and take a 30-minute break where I could detach myself from my work. What is the health risk to both nurses and patients when nurses can’t take breaks?

I spoke with nurse Alex Whitefield, who is an advocate for nurses. He is bringing to light the importance of nurse breaks. He himself has experienced burnout that contributed to the lack of breaks during his nursing shifts. Alex recalls “What was burning me out was the constant burn and turn…you literally bring someone to the morgue, and you come back and there’s your next patient already in the bed with orders.” This is an experience many nurses have, and it is affecting our health and increasing the risk of medical errors.

What are the risks of not getting a break?

The continuous stress over a 12-hour shift without a break creates a fatigued workforce. This constant and chronic fatigue can have devastating effects on nurses.  Chronic stress can lead to an increased risk of compassion fatigue in nurses, which can lead to burnout and other mental health issues. A tired nurse is more likely to make a mistake.  Healthcare mistakes not only hurt patients but may cause mental and emotional distress to the nurse. No nurse wants to make a mistake but working in high-stress environments without proper breaks can set a nurse up for failure.  Therefore, missing a break can not only cause harm to the nurse but can harm patients as well.

Do breaks really help?

There have been many studies that investigate the benefits of breaks. In one study researchers found that one uninterrupted 30-minute break reduced fatigue among nurses and nursing assistants. The catch is your break must remain uninterrupted if you want to gain the benefit. When was the last time you had an uninterrupted break?  

In other words, when nurses do not get a 30-minute break for their long shifts, mistakes may increase and patients can suffer. The increased stress and exhaustion can also lead to nurse burnout. Medication errors do not just effect patients. Nurses can develop anxiety and/or depression after making a mistake. Some have even committed suicide.

What about the law? Aren’t nurses required to take a break?

Maybe not. Surprisingly, there are only around 21 states that have a law protecting a nurse’s right to take a break during their shift. “There is so much to do and so much to be done to help our front-line staff,” explains Whitefield. The first step is bringing awareness to the issues and finding solutions. Whitefield has shared many stories about the consequences of nurses not being able to take their breaks. One OR nurse he spoke with was unable to use the bathroom to change her tampon and bled through her scrubs. Another nurse lost her breast milk supply prematurely when she was not able to pump when she needed to.

In the short term, missing a break here or there doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it can have devastating consequences not only for nurses but also for patients.

What can you do?

For travel nurses, you have more power and flexibility than staff nurses.

1.   You can choose which state you work in. Research what the mealtime law in the state is before you accept a job.

2.   In your interview ask how the break schedule works.

3.   If you find yourself in a difficult assignment, remember you have the freedom to change your location after your assignment is over.

Travel nursing gives you the freedom to decide what type of hospital you want to work for. Talk with one of our recruiters to learn how you can start your travel nurse career. 

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