Self-Care and Meal Breaks

Dear Nursing Colleagues,Have you ever felt guilty for taking a lunch break during your 12 hr. shift because it was so busy?   Or, when you know you REALLY need to take a break, have you found it hard to do so because there is no one to safely cover your patients?  In my opinion, this lack of Self-Care is a huge reason for burnout in nursing and lack of satisfaction overall.  I’m wondering if anyone out there can name another job/ calling/ profession where this type of treatment would be acceptable…For example, would a construction worker plow through a rigorous 8-10 hr. shift without taking a lunch break?  Or how about a professional engineer scaling bridges, looking for safety issues?  We are caring for human beings and must be supported to do so, safely!I’ve been an RN for three decades and during my most recent assignments have been finding it increasingly more difficult to get relieved properly to take a break.  And NO, a break is NOT scarfing down a sandwich while charting at the nurses’ station; nor is it stuffing cookies or snacks in our faces while running between patients in the Emergency Department.  While these two scenarios may meet minimal (yet empty) “calorie intake” needs of the body, they do not address the CARE and NOURISHMENT that our body/mind and spirit require during a “real break”.


In order to truly benefit us as nurses (and all health care professionals), we MUST be able to disengage from our patients and truly release the stress and adrenalin from our bodies before we take the time to properly nourish ourselves.   We need to hold ourselves in high esteem and see that Self-Care is critical for our own health.  We are entitled to be treated as human beings who deserve at least 30” of “uninterrupted down time” to take care of ourselves so that we can optimally CARE for our patients.  All that said, the legal definition and requirements vary based on the state in which we practice.Rebecca Hendren in a 2010 article titled, “Nurses say they need a break; why leadership should listen” noted,“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.”This is not a reassuring study for nursing or healthcare.  Even when we ask for a break, it should not be seen as a treat or unexpected reward.  Furthermore, working 12-13 hours non-stop on your feet should not be viewed as a 'badge of courage'.  We are all professionals and deserve to be treated as such; heck, when we don’t get breaks, we’re not even being treated as human beings… this is wrong and MUST STOP!


So, the next time you report to work, be sure to establish everyone’s break schedule at the start of your shift.  I feel that setting the tone early makes the shift run more smoothly and helps staff feel supported (knowing that a break is planned).  Be sure that someone relieves each staff member for an UNINTERRUPTED 30 minutes for break/ lunch.  This “someone” may need to be the house supervisor on night shift, or an extra staff member who just “covers for meal breaks” during days/ evenings.In so doing, I envision an improved level of satisfaction at work, safer patient care, and less burnout/ turnover of staff.  It’s certainly worth a try; we should insist on it each and every shift.   If you don't get coverage, my suggestion is to not only report it to your supervisor for pay, but to Risk Management as well, especially if it happens repeatedly.  Patients' lives are at risk when care-givers are not properly rested or fed.  Taking the best care of our patients begins with our own SELF-CARE!Warmest regards,Lisa