Harborview Medical Center offers nurses relief for needed work breaks

Nurse with a clipboard

The daily demands on nurses make it hard for them to take needed breaks during a long shift, but administrators at a Seattle hospital may have found a way to give nurses a little rest. 

A team of nurses at Harborview Medical Center, a 413-bed facility managed by the University of Washington School of Medicine, developed a six-month program that added four nurses to two of its acute care units, Vanessa Patricelli, an orthopedic nurse at the hospital and one of the creators of the pilot, writes in an article for STAT. These relief nurses cover the patients assigned to staff nurses while they take breaks to eat, decompress and get a breath of fresh air.

Nurses face some of the highest levels of workplace stress and burnout of any profession, FierceHealthcare has previously reported, and skipping breaks and meals while on the clock can lead to serious health problems. Overworked, exhausted nurses are more likely to cause  patient harm.

Nurses should take three 15-minute breaks and a full, uninterrupted meal during a 12-hour shift, Patricelli writes, but many put them off out of concern for patients and a lack of needed staff to cover for them. Compounding the problem, according to the article, is the fact that many managers see this as an issue with time management, as they’re under the impression that breaks are commonly taken.

Since the pilot, nurses on both units have reported more job satisfaction, according to the article, and the retention rate of nurses on both improved. The units also saw better outcomes for patients, too, Patricelli writes, as patient falls and medication errors decreased compared to the previous “buddy system” used to allow for breaks. The relief nurses are now part of the units’ normal staff rotations..

“We need to consider similar collaborative approaches that keep nurses at the bedside and nursing as a career choice that we want for our daughters and sons to pursue,” she writes. “The future of nursing depends on it.”