Is Night Duty A Professional Obligation?


Published: 07 June 2016

Night duty: it’s the easiest shift, right? No one gets up fifty times to go to the bathroom. No one rings the bell. No doctors come through, and patients never get sick and need care. Night shift is a controversial part of nursing. If you’ve never worked it, you have no idea what it’s like. If you have – and most have – you know it is not as easy as everyone makes it sound. In fact, it is probably the most difficult shift because you are constantly fighting the need for sleep and still making clinical decisions.

Very few nurses like night shift. They are usually the quirky ones who abhor the bright lights and the lurking management of the day shift. Most other nurse’s don’t appreciate having their sleep interrupted, or the inability to have a life. Yet nursing is still a twenty four hour job. You know that going in, and many facilities are not willing to give nurses straight days, regardless of the nurse’s situation. Should there be allowances for nurses who need days? Should those with seniority get days if they want? What will happen to the patients when no one wants to work nights?

Nursing Is A 24 Hour Job

Patients need care even when they are sleeping. To be honest, they don’t actually sleep very much during the night. Being in a hospital is anxiety producing for even the healthiest patient. It is scary for those facing life altering changes. For this reason, night duty is often quite busy. It isn’t fair for the ratios on night shift to be out of line with day shift ratios because the workload is comparable. Since no one seems to believe this, ratios on night duty are already skewed to the detriment of the nurse.

If nurses don’t like to work night duty, then the patients will suffer, and consequently, so will the nurses. Burnout is likely when nurses are forced to work long stretches of nights against their will, but you go into the profession knowing that there is no break in care after 2300. Even at 0300, patients still need a nurse who is able to save their lives. Many major problems – such as cardiac arrest – tend to happen on night duty. In this scenario, it is the nurse’s duty to work night shift. It is a burden for us all to bear for choosing the profession that we did.

Night Duty

Night Duty Interferes With Life

Night duty severely interferes with the lives of nurses, especially those who have small children. Children are awake during the day, meaning that you can’t sleep. You work at night, meaning you have to be awake then, too. You can’t leave your children alone while they sleep, either, so the situation is largely untenable. Some nurses have those in their lives who can help with childcare, but there are those that don’t have that option. Older kids make the situation a little easier, as you can sleep when they are in school, but even that may not be enough sleep. It is a very tricky situation and can push nurses away from the bedside or away from nursing entirely.

This shift can even affect those who do not have children. All people need a chance to cut lose and have fun from time to time, but if you are sleeping and working, these times can truly be rare. Nightly duty can make you tired all the time. Even if you only work three 12s, you may still not be able to recover enough to have a normal social life. It is true that night duty severely affects a nurse’s ability to have a life outside of nursing, and yet it is part of the job. In some cases there is just no way around it.

Seniority Should Mean Something

If you’ve been a nurse for a long time, you may feel you’ve paid your dues. You may feel that your seniority means that you should get straight day duty instead of having to work nights. This may well be true, and some facilities could make this work. Perhaps cutting down on the number of nights a more senior nurse works would make the situation better and allow the nurse to escape the problems associated with night duty.

The problem is that giving all of the night duty to new nurses means that they will have to endure the issues almost exclusively. This means that they can become burned out more quickly and are more likely to leave the profession. In either situation, someone ends up working night duty. Either more senior nurses are forced to work an inconvenient shift or new nurses are burnt out. It seems like the only fair solution is to separate the night duty equally, ignoring seniority. Nursing is a 24 hour job, and being senior doesn’t necessarily protect you from that truism that comes with the profession.