How Long Does a Nurse Work?

Updated December 19, 2022

Nurses often have varying schedules that can differ greatly from other jobs. Some nurses work eight-hour shifts five days a week, but many nurses work longer shifts for fewer days each week. In order to decide whether being a nurse suits you and your lifestyle, it is important to understand how long they work and consider their unique role and workplace. In this article, we discuss what a nurse's responsibilities are, how long nurses typically work and how to determine which nursing schedule is right for you.

What are a nurse's responsibilities?

Nurses have many different responsibilities that may help determine the length of their shifts. However, no matter the length, most registered nurses are responsible for elements of patient care, including:

  • Monitoring patients and recording changes

  • Performing tests and routine procedures

  • Administering treatments

  • Recording patient health history

  • Collaborating with physicians to create patient care plans

There are also different nursing specialties that may affect their responsibilities and shifts. For example, a school nurse treats students and determines whether they should remain at school or visit a doctor for further care. Since school nurses work during school hours, they work more regular shifts that typically begin in the morning and end in the afternoon. School nurses do not work on weekends since there is no school those days.

In contrast, a neonatal nurse in the NICU cares for infants who require constant monitoring. These nurses work longer shifts and may be required to work overnight and on weekends.

Read more: A Day in the Life of a Nurse: Typical Daily Activities and Duties

How long does a nurse work?

Typically, nurses either work eight, 10 or 12-hour shifts. A nurse's shifts can vary depending on factors such as location, demand and personal preference. Full-time nurses work between 36 and 40 hours a week, while part-time nurses usually work less than 30 hours a week.

Here's a breakdown of the three most common nursing shifts:

Eight-hour shifts

Some nurses work eight-hour shifts five days a week. This is most common in clinical and school settings where nurses only need to be available during standard business hours. In these cases, nurses may only work Monday through Friday, though this also depends on location, since some facilities may be open seven days a week.

Nurses may also have the option of working five eight-hour shifts a week in other settings, like hospitals, but these shifts are not always during the daytime. For example, in a 24/7 urgent care clinic, nurses may be required to work weekends or nights regardless of how long their shifts are or how many days per week they work.

10-hour shifts

Other nurses may work 10-hour shifts four days a week. When working 10-hour shifts, nurses have three days off during the week, which may be taken consecutively or spaced out between shifts.

10-hour shifts are the least common type of nursing shift. Most workplaces typically opt for either eight-hour or 12-hour shifts, but 10-hour shifts are sometimes offered in 24/7 clinical settings. Some nurses find this shift to be a good middle-ground between the other shift lengths because it allows them to work fewer days but isn't as intense as a 12-hour shift.

12-hour shifts

Some nurses may choose to work 12-hour shifts three days a week. This is most common in facilities that operate for 24 hours a day, such as hospitals, urgent care centers and assisted living homes. These workplaces need nurses on staff at all hours, so they typically assign longer shifts.

In these settings, nurses have the option of working day or night shifts. There is the potential to work a combination of day and night shifts occasionally, but since 12-hour shifts are so long, most nurses working this shift remain on a consistent schedule of working either days or nights.

When do nurses work?

Depending on a nurse's specific role and workplace, they may work different days of the week. Doctors' offices or other workplaces with limited daily hours offer the most predictable schedule for nurses because their scheduled hours align with the hours of operation.

However, in 24/7 facilities, there is a lot more variation for when nurses work. In these workplaces, most nurses work weekends occasionally, and they are typically required to work a certain number of holidays each year. There are some exceptions to this, depending on a nurse's specialty and level of seniority.

What are on-call shifts?

In addition to their regular shifts, nurses may also have on-call shifts, which fall outside of their regular work schedule and vary in length. On-call shifts can be scheduled during a nurse's day off or begin when a nurse's regular shift ends. When working an on-call shift after a regular shift, nurses are able to go home but need to remain available in case they get called back in to work. It is possible for a nurse to have an on-call shift without ever being called into work.

How often a nurse is required to work on-call shifts varies depending on each individual workplace, but on-call shifts are most common in hospital and ER settings. These shifts are used to account for emergencies, such as staff calling out of work or a sudden influx of new patients. Nurses are paid a specific rate while being on call, and most workplaces pay nurses a bonus if they are called into work.

Can you choose your own schedule as a nurse?

Depending on their location, nurses may be able to choose a schedule that works best for them. Nurses who work at 24/7 care facilities have the option of working night or day shifts, and it is also possible for nurses to combine different types of shifts during a workweek. For example, a nurse could work three 10-hour shifts and one 8-hour shift in a week, giving them 38 hours for the week in total.

Not every workplace offers nurses the option to choose their shifts, however. Some positions call for nurses to work five eight-hour shifts each week, and other positions call for nurses to work three 12-hour shifts. At 24/7 facilities, nurses have the most flexibility with their schedules since there are so many hours available to work.

Even if they have to work three 12-hour shifts, they may be able to choose what hours and days those shifts will be. Nurses also commonly swap shifts with one another, so last-minute changes of plan are possible if you have a coworker willing to take your scheduled shift.

Related: Nurse Schedules: Pros, Cons and Tips

How to determine which nursing schedule is right for you

When deciding if a nursing schedule will work for you, consider what best fits your lifestyle. Working 12-hour shifts might be a great schedule for you if you have other responsibilities that require you to have multiple days off each week. Nurses who are pursuing other projects such as school or a time-intensive hobby often find 12-hour shifts ideal. 12-hour shifts may also be a good option if you have a long commute because you will only have to commute to work three days a week.

However, you should also think about your personal well-being when choosing a nursing schedule. Everyone is different, so while 12-hour shifts may work well for some people, others may be happier working eight-hour or 10-hour shifts that give them more time to rest. Consider whether you are comfortable being on your feet for 12 hours a day and whether you can stay focused for long periods of time.

A more standard eight-hour shift may also work best for parents who need to take care of their children in the mornings and after school. This shift allows you to be home at a reasonable time and potentially have weekends off, depending on where you work.

Before beginning your nursing education, consider where you would like to work and what schedule you would prefer. If you know that you want to work shorter daytime shifts, a clinical setting like a family practice might be a good workplace for you. In comparison, if you are looking for the flexibility of having several days off each week, a hospital or urgent care setting might be the best fit.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding what type of nursing schedule is right for you:

  • Do you prefer a set schedule or flexibility?

  • How many days do you want to work each week?

  • What days do you want to work each week?

  • Are you comfortable working for long periods of time?

  • Are you willing to work on weekends and holidays?

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