That is the question, my friends. I recall receiving this piece of advice in nursing school: “The secret to nursing is to never work overtime. Work 3 days a week and only 3 days a week.”

Unfortunately, this piece of advice was coming from my favorite nurse that i had worked with in clinicals, the one that never had a bad attitude, was a team player, and was down for whatever came his way. So what to believe??!

Here’s the thing. Nursing is crazy. It’s all so different, yet so similar. For instance, an ED nurse or a NICU nurse might feel differently than an adult med surg nurse. The ED and the NICU carry on around the clock. Babies don’t know the time difference, and the ED sometimes gets crazier at night. But during my practicum I learned that med surg units often have quiet hours for their patients from midnight to 0600. So, in this case, discussing overtime with a night shift NICU nurse might not be as daunting as it is for a med surg nurse to stay awake for a fourth night of the week. So, definitely do your research and get to know your unit and your position before tacking on a bunch of overtime. What is the night shift vibe for overtime? What’s your day shift vibe like on your fourth shift? I personally found on night shift I really wasn’t able to work a lot of overtime because it just exhausted me, but on day shift I don’t have any problems as long as my shifts aren’t all in a row!

The whole “getting to know your unit” concept brings me to what I believe to be the most important aspect when deciding whether to pick up overtime. It worries me to no end when brand new nurses two weeks post NCLEX are picking up four and five shifts a week. Even nurses a few months into it. I urge you all to give yourselves time; you are adjusting to far more than you realize. The biggest harm I think we can do to our patients as nurses is not taking care of ourselves. There is obvious harm like forgetting a med, but the biggest harm is when stress builds up, and fatigue piles on, and before you know it, your attitude about your patients, your mission, and your duty has changed for the worse. It doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over time. Just be mindful. Know your boundaries, and take your time. Quite honestly, even nurses with ten years of experience scare me when they pick up five or six consecutive shifts. There is no rush whatsoever for overtime. If you’re a new grad you likely have 40+ years for overtime anyway!

And finally, your motivation for picking up extra. Watch out for becoming dependent on overtime. I personally am guilty of this to the extreme. It’s really easy to plan a few trips and pay for them with overtime, but ideally you’re not paying for your car payment or your rent with extra shifts. Make sure you are living within the means of your normal paychecks and using any extra cash for trips, treats, holidays, etc.

So, I didn’t end up following that nurse’s advice after all. I do pick up overtime. Sometimes I pick up a lot. Ultimately, I had to use discretion about who I took advice from and what their role is. This nurse happened to have a wife and three kids at home, which isn’t my current situation. Be mindful of who you’re speaking to. In fact, be mindful of my advice! Maybe my situation isn’t the same as yours right now. Talk to people who are in similar situations as yourself or who have been in your place. Find out what works for them and sit down and think through the benefits and risks for yourself.

While we may all be nurses, we’re all different. And worst case scenario, you’re just not sure if it’s right for you, then give it a try! One shift wont hurt. See how you feel and go from there.

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Alicia Klingensmith, BSN, RN

Alicia Klingensmith received her BSN from the University of North Florida and currently works in the NICU at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

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