Are nurses who pick up extra shifts at risk of harming themselves or others?


To boost their pay, many nurses pick up extra shifts. But juggling extra work and racking up 50-plus hours a week can take a toll on a nurse’s physical and mental health. Plus, it can diminish quality of care and lead to patient errors.

Medscape’s RN/LPN Compensation Report 2022 found that more than half of RNs and LPNs don’t think they get paid enough. Even though many nurses saw pay increases over the past 2 years, many were still dissatisfied with their earnings. They blamed job stress, staffing shortages, and benefits that cut into their wages.

Why do nurses pick up extra shifts?

Most nurses work extra hours for the money. Incentives like getting paid time and a half or scoring a $200 bonus are hard to pass up.

“I’m a single mother with two kids,” said Cynthia West, a critical care nurse in Atlanta. “I want to be able to pay my bills and enjoy my life, too.” So, Ms. West picks up two to three extra shifts a month. She also works on-call for a sexual assault center, earning $350 per exam.

But money isn’t the only reason for some nurses. Trang Robinson travels from her home in Atlanta to Palo Alto, Calif., every other week for her job as a labor and delivery RN.

“If my unit needs extra help, I want to help,” she said. “It’s not about the extra money, although that helps my family; it’s that we’ve been so short-staffed. My colleagues are burned out. Staff members are burned out. When I’m there, I work as much as I can to help out my unit.”

Leslie Wysong, an Atlanta postanesthesia nurse, worked in intensive care during much of COVID. She said the chance to make level 3 pay was rewarding for many nurses, but most weren’t doing it for the money.

“We were doing it to alleviate the strain on our fellow nurses, to get closer to a 2:1 patient/nurse ratio rather than the 3:1 we were dealing with over the pandemic,” she said. “It was to help out our colleagues during a desperate situation.”

What are the risks?

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that a work shift that lasts more than 8 hours can disrupt the body’s sleep/wake cycle. It can also lead to physical and mental fatigue resulting in errors, injuries, and accidents.

And a study published in the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses found that extended shifts or shift work impacted nurses in many ways, including more medication errors, falling asleep during work hours, decreased productivity in the last 4 shift hours (of a 12-hour shift), increased risk of mistakes and near-errors associated with decreased vigilance, critical thinking impairment, and more needlestick injuries.

Another study, published in Rehabilitation Nursing Journal, found even more adverse effects, such as sleep disorders like insomnia and excessive sleepiness; cognitive impairment such as the reduced ability to concentrate, slower reactions times, and reduced ability to remember information; higher rates of injury while on the job; being more likely to engage in overeating and alcohol misuse; GI issues such as abdominal pain, constipation, and heartburn; higher rates of heart disease and high blood pressure; higher risk for breast and prostate cancers, and higher rates of depression and anxiety.

These are risks some nurses aren’t willing to take. For example, Caitlin Riley, a pediatric ED nurse in Ocala, Fla., only picks up extra shifts when she must, like when Hurricane Ian swept through Central Florida.

“I think working extra hours can compromise your quality of care,” she said. “You may make mistakes with things like math calculations or not catch something if you’re not totally ‘in’ it mentally. At the end of the day, it’s your nursing license. Sure, the money is great, but I won’t do anything to compromise losing my license or patient care.”


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