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The Missing Meal

Nurses notoriously skip taking breaks during their work shifts, a habit unfortunately perpetuated by the fast-paced nature of healthcare environments and the substantial workloads that make it challenging to take a few moments to rest and recharge. A recent study revealed over 50% of nurses don’t take any break at all during their working shift, let alone time for a midday meal. Unlike hospital or clinic nurses, school nurses are often the sole medical professional in their workplace. They are frequently exposed to the realities and hardships of health inequities, making them even less likely to squeeze in a midday meal.

Taking a lunch break may seem like a small thing, but it can have a significant impact on a school nurse’s overall well-being, as well as on the health and well-being of the students they serve. Failing to take breaks can result in a variety of negative consequences.

  • Physical discomfort due to an inability to use the restroom.
  • Lack of access to healthy food options can lead to negative emotional states such as demoralization and dissatisfaction.
  • Reduced cognitive performance and lack of attention and vigilance are often linked with fatigue.
  • All of the above, in turn, can lead to increased errors and adverse student health outcomes.


Apart from the errors caused by lapses in memory and attention, there is a growing body of research that highlights the concept of ‘decision fatigue,’ where decision-making abilities decline predictably over extended periods of work. As the number of consecutive decisions made without a break increases, people resort to more accessible options, such as accepting default choices, delegating decisions to others, or relying on rules of thumb or shortcuts. Healthcare providers are not immune. In one study, physicians were more likely to write an unnecessary prescription later in their workday. At the same time, as the time since their last break increased, nurses tended to become increasingly inclined to refer their patients to other healthcare professionals.

But it’s not just student health that suffers when nurses don’t get the opportunity to step away from their duties for a short period of time, recharge their batteries, and come back to their work with renewed energy and focus. In March of 2022, the CDC and NASN published a collaborative study in which they found that “work stressors were significantly associated with poor mental health symptoms among school nurses.” The physical, mental, and emotional fatigue that can result from working without breaks almost inevitably leads to burnout, a condition all too familiar with healthcare providers and one associated with decreased job satisfaction, mental health concerns, and even physical illness.

As compassionate caregivers who are more used to taking care of others than themselves, how can school nurses ensure they are getting the lunch break they deserve and need? Some regulations and contractual provisions maintain that school nurses should receive a “duty-free” lunch. Other districts or administrators may tell their school nurse to take lunch “whenever they want.”

But to actually make it happen, school nurses must prioritize the midday respite and advocate for the resources and, in some cases, the time needed to take a break during the school day. This may involve:

  • Scheduling health office coverage
  • Designating a specific time each day to “close” the health office
  • Implementing a safe plan of action in case medical care is needed during the school nurse’s lunch


In most cases, school nurse lunch requires flexibility including:

  • Carrying a cell phone or radio to be available for real health emergencies (and lots of time spent educating students and staff on what constitutes a real emergency!)
  • Waiting until after the typical lunch/recess crowds
  • Being firm on boundaries


It may take some time to get into a lunch routine, but it’s an essential piece of self-care, which is, in effect, career care and, ultimately, student care. Therefore, you can consider it your job to take that lunch break.

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