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6 Ways to Prepare for a 12 Hour Nursing Shift


I often hear people say, “It must be nice to only work 3 days per week!” Yet, if only these non-nurse friends and family members understood exactly what it actually means to work 3 12 hour shifts as a nurse. Working a 12 hour shift in any line of work is exhausting, at least, and completely draining, at most. The key to not only surviving, but thriving, during these long shifts is to plan ahead. In my experience, there are 6 specific ways to prepare for a 12 hour nursing shift, making it as effortless as possible.

Why Planning Ahead Matters

Truthfully, nurses are up on their feet, walking, standing, and even running, most of their shifts. That’s a long time to be physically active. And, there’s rarely time to use the restroom, eat a snack, and take a sip of water. Our brains are constantly engaged and stimulated, ensuring everything we do is safe for ourselves and our patients. Not to mention, the emotional toll it takes to care for sick and dying patients. 

Needless to say, these 12 hour nurse shifts are no joke. They are as emotionally and physically draining as they come.

This is why planning ahead matters. Personally, my worst nurse shifts were a result of failing to prepare well. After learning my lesson one too many times, I now know exactly what it takes to survive a 12 hour nursing shift (and sometimes even thrive).


6 Ways to Prepare for a 12 Hour Nursing Shift

Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. These 6 tips will help you prepare for even the most challenging nurse shifts, while keeping you healthy, alert, energized, and on top of your game:

  1. Pack Your Meals-  Bring enough food to fuel yourself throughout your shift. 12 hours of meals typically equates to three larger meals and a couple snacks. One of the worst things you can do is rely on hospital food: 1) because there’s often not enough time to actually track down food. And 2) I hate to say it, but most quick meal options in the hospital are anything-but-nutritious. Also, bringing too little food is a recipe for disaster, too.
  2. Sleep Enough- Make sure to get plenty of sleep the night before a shift. Personally, I know I operate and function best when I’m in bed by 9:30 pm, allowing for 8 hours of solid rest. What is your golden sleep schedule? Know it and stick to it. No if’s, and’s, or but’s!
  3. Stay Hydrated– The first signs of dehydration are fatigue, brain fog, and headaches. All of which are the last things you want to experience as a busy nurse. Bring a reusable water bottle with you to fill up with filtered water regularly. Aim to drink half your body weight (pounds) in ounces of water. Bonus: add some electrolytes to your water for an extra hydration boost!
  4. Know Your Limits– Be diligent about knowing your mental and physical limits. Never overcommit to too many shifts (or overtime) when you know you need the rest. Trust me, you and your patients will suffer from your desire to “just push through.” You’re the best nurse when you’ve had time to rest and recover.
  5. Dress Comfortably– Luckily, as nurses, our scrubs are as comfortable as uniforms get. Invest in several sets of your favorite (and most comfortable) scrubs. Also, find shoes that fit your foot well and don’t lead to blisters after spending hours on your feet. Also, consider trying compression socks!
  6. Take Care of Yourself- Especially on your days off, make it a priority to take care of yourself (mentally and physically). Participate in activities you enjoy, take a bath, spend time with loved ones, stock up on nourishing foods, and simply make time for self-care. 

It might be challenging and exhausting, especially during long shifts, but a little preparation goes a long way. Implement these tips to make the best of your 12 hour  nurse shifts.