Can an RN work too much?

rn work too much
Once you find your first RN job, you might wonder if it is possible for an RN to work too much. With the current and increasing shortage of nurses, nurses are often provided with the opportunity or at times just expected to work a great deal of overtime. Some nurses also work multiple jobs to increase their total income. As a nurse entering the current healthcare industry, what do you need to consider when working extra hours? Read on to find out.

Ensure Adequate Rest

Studies have demonstrated that tired nurses make more mistakes. In a study completed by the University of Pennsylvania, nurses who worked over 40 hours a week or long 12 hour shifts were more likely to make mistakes, including errors in medication administration, deviation from standard nursing practices, and charting mistakes and errors in transcribing information.

In 2016, Johns Hopkins researchers stated that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the United States and estimated that more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. Every healthcare provider must be aware of this and be more diligent and work closely with one another to identify and prevent potential errors from occurring.

There is no one correct answer regarding how many hours a nurse can safely work. This is going to vary from nurse to nurse depending on many factors, including acuity on the unit, staffing levels, length of shifts, and the nurse’s personal responsibilities and own capabilities. As a new graduate, I worked many overtime shifts, often 16 hours at a time, while also attending graduate school and serving in the United States Air Force Reserves as a flight nurse. Over the years, my personal responsibilities have changed; if I currently tried to work that amount of overtime, I would likely make mistakes that could cause harm to my patients.

Therefore, you will need to constantly evaluate your ability to practice safely and determine how many hours you can safely work at any given time and the total each week. You should never feel guilty about turning down the opportunity to work extra hours if you are tired, quality is much more important than quantity.

When possible plan in advance, so that you can be sure to get adequate rest. It would be helpful if you can pre-schedule your overtime shifts, as this allows you to be a team player without the last-minute pressure to work extra when you might already be exhausted or have other plans or commitments. If you work in a very demanding unit, be it physically and/or emotionally, taking breaks from work is essential for your own well being. As hard as it might be, you should decline the opportunity for overtime if you are tired and need a break.

Don’t feel bad that you are considering the safety of your patients first. A good manager will understand that taking care of yourself will lead to a more productive team player and better patient outcomes in the end.

Budget Efficiently

I hear many nurses say that they need to work a lot of overtime so that they can afford a vacation, holiday gifts, new items, a wedding, a house, or other purchases. While nursing often provides us with the opportunity to earn extra money, be careful about the cost this takes on your personal life and the overall quality of work. Again, working a few shifts of overtime may be fine, but working 8 days in a row could be very problematic.

To avoid finding yourself in a tight situation, plan and budget ahead of time. Keep lists of your earnings, expenses and desires. See where you can save a little money for a future desire. If earning more is imperative, consider how to safely accomplish this. For example, some nurses will work a second job that is not as demanding. If you work in a very fast-paced acute emergency room full time, consider something completely different as a second position, such as home care infusions, teaching, or even an online nursing triage position. The variety will enhance your overall collection of skills, and the different acuity and responsibilities can be an excellent change in pace. Working this other position will not feel like a chore and will protect you from burning out at your full time position, which can happen when one works non-stop to make extra money or to meet the unit’s needs.

Nursing should remain a positive opportunity where you are truly able to care for others and mentor the next generation of nurses. Limiting the amount you work in any one position will allow you to decompress and prepare to return fully prepared for your next shift.

Balance Personal Life and Work

We all go into nursing for different reasons, but one of the main reasons is to help and care for others. If you are no longer enjoying you work, it might be because you are not balancing your work and personal lives. When working as a nurse, we make many sacrifices, such as missing certain functions because of work. We must balance these sacrifices carefully. For example, the demands for overtime are usually high around the holidays, since nurses want to spend time with their families. If you can help out, that is great — but don’t overextend yourself. Offer to pick up one or two shifts, not four or five, and explain that you need to have time to be with your family or friends too.

Perhaps you are the young, single nurse who recently moved to the area for a great job opportunity and everyone expects you to pick up those extra shifts. Well, you also need time to rest, spend time with your new friends, or doing activities you enjoy. Don’t feel pressured into working nonstop. You can decline a shift and enjoy yourself without feeling guilty! It is not any one nurse’s responsibility to keep the floor running smoothly; that is the management team’s responsibility.