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Conference told that repeated 12-hour shifts are same as 'slave labour'


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”

Jane Smith

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]”

Unison member

“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.


Readers' comments (22)

  • Todays demand on qualified nurses and midwives means that nurses quite often work beyond their normal 7.5hrs of duty. I am retiring this year after 39yrs in the NHS. Starting as a HCSW, Staff Nurse, Charge Nurse and lastly as a Clinical Ward Manager. I have worked both 7.5hrs of duty and 12 hours of duty, and preferred the 12hours shifts, meaning I did not have to battle commuter traffic and had quality time off with my family. It is not just the young nurses coming through that enjoy the days off when working 12 hour shifts. What is important in todays demanding clinical environment is that there is work life balance. It is interesting, that when our pilot 6 month long day model was audited, their was overwhelming support to keep the model from nurses of all age ranges, and the patients feedback was that it gave better consistency in care delivery. Nurses who are working excessive days of 12 hours shifts are more than likley to be working bank, and this would need close monitoring. Nursing shortages add to the demand to nurses to backfill and cover shifts, and not to mention the current payscales.

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  • Some of us prefer to work longer shifts plus patients like it as they say it improves continuity of care. I for one will retire immediately if I am forced to work 7.5 hour shifts again. I want a work life balance not a life where I am only allowed 4 days off a fortnight which sometimes involves a 10 day stretch.

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  • I won't work longer than 7.5 hours as I feel it is detrimental to my health and the quality of care I can give to patients. However, if nurses want to do them then fine but long shifts should not be enforced on nurses. We need to get better at being flexible in our profession and let people choose their own work life balance with different types of shifts and contracts (part time etc)

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  • 12 hour shifts are not suitable for everyone and being forced to do them is wrong, it impacts on patient care and staff welfare. only a fool would think it wouldnt

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  • I have worked both 'long days' and 7.5 hour shifts, over 30 years of nursing. Indeed in days gone by, in mental health, a late, two long days and an early, followed by an early, two days off and a late shift, was the norm. It worked well, there was consistency for the patients, and it was easy to plan your time off, months in advance if necessary. No need for trying to fit the rota round staff's requests - they knew what their days off were and if there really was a need for a particular day, they could swap with somebody else. I have never quite understood why this is considered so difficult. Personally I think four days is the ideal length for the working week and like many others, I used to appreciate the days off, with a proper break. There is no excuse for people working more than three long days together. It is very tiring and that is when mistakes begin to be made.

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  • Working short shifts impacts on staff welfare as a)they never get off on time and are often asked to stay on for the late shift when on an early ergo a long day..and B) get less days off..It should be staff choice what shifts they's about time managers realised this. If they are more flexible staff are more willing to help out in a crisis

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  • If I had to give up my long days my daughter in law would have to give up her job..We work round each other to provide care for my grandchildren

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  • My trust is forcing staff to work long shifts,the staff are exhausted. We are also doing e rostering which always puts staff down for more hours than they are contracted for,all this is money driven,our managers dont care about staff welfare or patient trust has seen a massive exodus in qualified staff and I am truly afraid that we will lose more.Our managers just say that staff have had their own way for too long,and they have to get on with It!

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  • It should be compulsory for all managers to work or at least shadow their clinical colleagues for a set number of hours/shifts over a set period of time, e.g. 3 months/6months/yearly. I bet stupid comments such as "staff have had their own way for too long..." would be replaced by "I didn't realise how tiring working a 12 hours shift is in the community"!! (an example). This is yet an other example of the govt treating workers like robots. When one has worked a 12 hour shift, it's not just a case of flying home, into bed, zzz 11 hours sleep, it's a case of driving home knackered, winding down period, have a shower/bath/wash/eat/drink,sort out uniform/food/money etc for the next day. And many of us have children/partners to add to this mix. I have sometimes thought it would be easier/safer for me to stay at work, bringing my sleeping bag with me...

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  • 12 hour shift? the reality is it is more like 14 or 16 hour shift, but that will be nothing mps want the 24 hour never go home again shift

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