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Nurses Say They Need A Break; Why Leadership Should Listen

   September 14, 2010

There has been a spate of news articles in the last few months about nurse protests and threats of strikes. A frayed work environment lies at the heart of many of these confrontations, with a workforce that feels it is stretched too thin. Nurses are speaking up about overwork and short staffing and the effect they feel it has on patient care.

Nurses at a Veterans Administration hospital in Augusta, GA, last week planned a protest claiming 16-hour workdays that they said threatened patient care. Facing a budget deficit of several million dollars, the VA nurses association said the hospital was forced to slow hiring and extend nurses workdays.

The Washington State Nurses Association successfully sued two healthcare organizations over missed rest breaks. The rulings affirmed the employers' responsibility to provide uninterrupted rest breaks.

These incidents, and others, are surprising during a weak economy, when jobs are scarce—particularly for new grads—and employers in all professions find many people are simply grateful to have a job.

The complaints are even more surprising given the culture of nursing. Rarely having time for rest and meal breaks is part of the nursing folklore. New graduate initiation practically stipulates that a requirement of successful floor nurses is a gargantuan bladder.

This culture is entrenched. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Nursing Administration revealed that hospital staff nurses were completely free of patient care responsibilities during a break or meal period less than half the shifts they worked. In 10% of their shifts, nurses reported having no opportunity to sit down for a break or meal period. The rest of the time, nurses said they had time for a break, but no one was available to take over patient care.

Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at

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