Older nurses seem to hold up the “I never get a break”, “my bladder is made of steel”, “I don’t need to eat” or “patient care comes first” badge of honor. Is not taking breaks during a 12 hour shift honorable? Fortunately, the Department of Labor in many states has cracked down on hospitals who were either not giving breaks, or not recording employee breaks. Do you take breaks?
Nursing is a stressful occupation; it is not unusual for nurses to be on their feet for most of the shift, even while documenting in the electronic record. Taking breaks—for rest, for meals, or to take care of personal needs—is essential, not only for the sake of the nurse’s health and well-being, but for reasons of patient safety.
Nurses often report that in the typical healthcare setting, taking all of the breaks to which they are entitled is difficult, if not impossible. Assuming that nurses can find the time to take a break, they are responsible for arranging coverage for their assigned patients, and if anything urgent is going on, they can’t simply walk away. This is a challenge when everyone else is as busy as you are.
Do you take a break anyway, with the justification that you need it, crossing your fingers that your “break buddy” will be able to handle anything that happens while you are gone? Or do you skip formal breaks, perhaps ducking into the break room just long enough to eat something? Some work settings have a central “main desk” area that allows nurses to sit down for a few minutes and maybe have a drink or a snack, all the while keeping an eye on the monitors, answering call lights, and generally being available if anything happens, but does that really qualify as a break?
As crazy as it seems, many nurses are so used to not being able to take real, uninterrupted breaks that they accept this state of affairs without much complaint. Some employers pay nurses for missed meal breaks, but with preconditions. For example, hospitals can require nurses to notify the charge nurse if they find it impossible to take a meal break, and failure to do so can mean forfeiting the right to claim pay for a missed break. Routinely being unable to take meal breaks can result in charges of poor time management, especially if other nurses on the unit seem to be able to take their breaks.
Even so, being paid for a missed meal break is a poor substitute for working an entire shift without any rest time.
In a recent article—”Nurses: No Breaks, No Lunch, No Pay—Can Hospitals Get Away With This?”—a nurse attorney answers a nurse’s question about the legal issues surrounding breaks. We’d love to hear your break stories. What happens where you work, how do you and your colleagues deal with breaks, and are you paid if you can’t take a meal break? Take our poll and leave your comments.