The health effects of 12-hour shifts must be assessed immediately following a growing demand for nurses to work long hours, according to union members.
At Unison’s healthcare conference in Liverpool this week, one member from the union’s Staffordshire community health branch highlighted staff at a cottage hospital in her area who were expected to work six “long” days a week, equating to up to 78 hours.
The member, Jane Smith, said she had been told of one staff nurse who had worked 11 consecutive long day shifts.
“The fact staff are so tired has a detrimental effect on patient care and [also] puts other staff at risk”
Most of the staff were bank and agency workers due to staffing shortages in the area and also the short-notice reopening of the cottage hospital to help deal with the crisis at acute services in the area, she added.
Ms Smith said the use of long shifts in this way was equivalent to “slave labour” and that staff were already beginning to go off work sick due to exhaustion.
“The fact staff are so tired has a detrimental effect on patient care and not only compromises their own health but puts other staff at risk,” she said.
“There is a case for saying there is a better way [of organising shift work]”
“The potential for accidents to occur is immense. Some of these staff drive miles before and after their shift,” added Ms Smith.
A motion calling for Unison to commission a study to assess the impact of long shifts was passed.
At a separate event during the conference, research associate Chiara Dall’Ora from Southampton University discussed results from a study on nurse shift work. She said recent figures showed around 35% of UK nurses reported working 12-hour shifts.
Nurses attending the event said they were concerned shift work would become even more common due to a wave of younger registrants who accepted longer hours as normal practice and enjoyed the perk of having more days off.
“My fear is for a whole generation of nurses who don’t know any better”
Nurse with 32 years’ experience
One nurse, who had worked on wards for 32 years and said she had never routinely worked 12 hours shifts, said: “My fear is for a whole generation of nurses who don’t know any better, and when you ask them why they like 12-hour shifts, the first thing people say is because of the days off.
“There is a case for saying there is a better way [of organising shift work] because what has been said about sickness [being linked to long shifts] is true,” she told delegates.
A mental health worker from Derbyshire, who worked in the private sector, added: “My employer regularly puts staff on 10 or 12 hour shifts. Sometimes we finish at 10pm and have to be back at seven in the morning.
“A lot of private employers are a law unto themselves and it needs to be taken notice of,” she said.