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Shift work. What you need to know...

By Gemma Raw

Before taking on a job with set shift patterns, it is worth considering whether it fits in with your lifestyle and also how you can balance it with family life.

Type of shift work

In recent years the number of hours worked by doctors and nurses per shift has started to change. Increasingly, NHS employers are implementing longer, 12-shifts, clustered into fewer days during the week. Some professionals prefer this way of working since it can help with having a better work-life balance, but others prefer shorter shifts over more days.

You might not have the flexibility to decide the type of shift pattern you wish to do with your current employer, but if you are registered with a healthcare recruitment agency, they’ll be able to find you an employer who will be able to accommodate your preferred working pattern.

Deciding a shift pattern

It really is up to you as an individual. If you struggle with long days in what is already a demanding job, you might prefer to do five shorter shifts over the week rather than three long days. It will also depend on what additional support you have at home and whether you have children to think about too. If you register with an agency, they’ll walk you through your options.

What breaks will I need to take?

Rest breaks during your shift

We know working shifts is highly demanding, but it’s important you take a break. If your daily working time is more than six hours, you are entitled to take a 20-minute uninterrupted break.

Daily rest breaks

You are entitled to a rest period of at least 11 hours in any given 24-hour working period, which can be taken over two days. If this is not possible, which due to the nature of healthcare work, does happen, “equivalent compensatory periods of rest” must be put in place.

With 12-hour shifts becoming increasingly popular, you must be aware that there should be a break of 11 consecutive hours between each 12-hour shift. This is to protect both you and your patients. RCN offers specific guidance for nurses.

Weekly rest breaks

At least every seven days you should have a 24-hour rest period. This is on top of your 11 hours daily rest period. Your employer can average the weekly period over 14 days, providing either two uninterrupted rest periods of not less than 24 hours or one uninterrupted rest period of not less than 48 hours.

Understanding the 48 hours per week rule

Your agency should monitor your working hours to make sure you do not work beyond the average 48 hours per week, unless you have specifically agreed not to apply the limit. This needs to take the form of a written agreement with your chosen agency.

It’s always advisable to check your contract with your agency to read what it says about maximum weekly working times.

Tips for working shifts

Shift work can prove hugely beneficial, especially if you have other commitments outside of work you need to attend to. But it can also be tiring. If you follow some of these tips below, you’ll be on track to mastering shift work.


  • Try and make your room as dark as possible. There are some great options to purchase made-to-measure black-out blinds from plenty of low-cost online retailers. They’re a doddle to fit too!

  • If you struggle to wake up, try investing in an alarm clock that gently wakes you up by replicating natural sunlight. Ideal if you need to start in the early hours in the Winter.

  • It’s tempting to make your bedroom warm, but if you make it cooler than the rest of the house, you’ll find it easier to get some sleep ahead of your shift.

  • Ear plugs and eye masks are useful too. Especially if the rest of the family has other plans

During your shift:

  • Make time for breaks (see our guidance above)

  • If you find you are feeling tired, try and grab some fresh air

  • Caffeine is also a necessity but if it doesn’t agree with you try something refreshing like peppermint tea

  • Try to eat nutritious meals. Think nuts and grains and you’ll feel more energised

Finally, don’t forget you’re only human. The only superpower you have is your ability to treat and support patients and so it’s important to look after yourself.

We have written a selection of pieces around starting and navigating your nursing career. If you are looking for your next role, simply upload your CV.