Nurse Schedules: Pros, Cons and Tips

Updated June 24, 2022

Nurses work hard to provide healthcare to patients of all ages. Their job requires a schedule that differs from most nine to five workdays. While most nurses work longer hours in a shift, they also maintain flexible schedules and fewer workdays in a week. In this article, we explain a typical nurse schedule, list the pros and cons of a nurse schedule and give you tips so you can be better prepared to handle a nurse's schedule.

What is a typical nurse schedule?

A typical workday for a nurse is a 12-hour shift either from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Because of the long days, nurses usually work only three days a week. At the start of a shift, nurses will check in for a "handoff" from the nurse currently working in their area. The incoming nurse receives information about their current patients, including medical conditions, medication and dosages and any other relevant health information.

For the remainder of their shift, a nurse administers needed care for their patients, communicates with doctors and other medical staff and charts all patient data. Once their shift is over, a nurse must complete their "handoff" to the next nurse on shift. Completing any necessary patient care may go over the 12-hour day, but after they finish those duties, a nurse's shift is over.

Related: How to Become a Nurse

Do different types of nurses work different schedules?

While most nurses, especially those who work in hospitals, work a standard 12-hour shift, there are certain nurse positions that require different work schedules. Nurses who work in a doctor's office typically have a 40-hour week working Monday through Friday.

Here are some of the different nursing positions that do not require 12-hour shifts:

  • Outpatient nurses: Work four 10-hour shifts and leave after their last procedure

  • Surgery nurses: Work four 10-hour shifts and leave after their last procedure

  • Nurse educators: Work Monday through Friday from eight to five

  • Nurse managers: Work Monday through Friday from eight to five

  • Nurse case managers: Work Monday through Friday from eight to five

Related: 52 Types of Nurses

Pros and cons to working a nurse's schedule

Working as a nurse requires dedicated professionals who provide expert care. After rigorous training programs in school and on the job training, nurses earn the ability to choose a flexible schedule.

Here are some of the pros and cons of working a nurse's schedule:

Pros of working a nurse's schedule

Some pros of working a nurse's schedule include:

  • Flexible workdays: One of the biggest benefits of working a nurse's schedule is the amount of days off in a row a nurse can take. Though some nurses choose to work two days on and one off, others opt for three days in a row, so they have four non-working days in a row.

  • Fewer days to commute: While some nurses live and work in the same city, others find better opportunities in healthcare locations outside of their area. Instead of commuting five days a week, nurses who live far from their jobs only have to make the drive up to three times a week.

  • Fewer days for childcare: For nurses with young children, the amount of childcare needed is less than a traditional five-day work week.

  • More per diem options: Although nurse schedules include long hours, they are more conducive to per diem work. This means nurses may choose to accept shifts on a single basis and schedule their work one day at a time to fit their needs.

  • Easy to travel: Nurses can potentially take seven days off in a row without vacation time if their schedule permits. This means nurses can travel more often and more easily than many other professions if they choose.

  • Steady workflow: Even though shifts are long, a nurse's schedule is usually full. Consistent and steady work throughout their work hours means nurses can feel productive while on the job.

  • Weekdays off: Some nurses appreciate the ability to take care of certain responsibilities that can be difficult to do on weekends.

Cons of working a nurse's schedule

Potential cons of working a nurse's schedule include the following:

  • Long days: Sometimes shifts can turn into 16-hour days to meet patient needs. Nurses can be asked to work overtime at the end of a long shift to cover staffing issues or to handle emergencies.

  • Odd sleep schedule: Nurses who work a night shift can find it difficult to adjust their sleep time on days off. Since they are constantly shifting the time of day they sleep, settling down into a deep slumber may be more challenging on non-workdays.

  • Less family time on workdays: Long shifts mean a nurse may leave home before others in their household are awake and return when young children are already in bed.

  • No downtime while on shift: As nurses move between patients and chart all necessary information, there might be few chances to stop and take a break.

  • Harder to focus on your own health: Fatigue and physical exertion from a demanding schedule can make it easier to neglect your own health as you continue with 12-hour shift work.

  • Lots of information to remember at the handoff: As nurses change shifts, they must report patient information to the incoming nurse before they leave. This can be challenging as they must share 12 hours of notes.

Related: What Is an APN Nurse?

Tips for effectively handling a nurse's schedule

Here are some ideas to help you handle a nurse's rewarding and demanding schedule:

Make sleep a priority

Plan to go to bed early before a shift so you can get plenty of rest. Try to keep your sleep schedule as consistent as possible before and after workdays. If you work night shifts, plan extra time for sleep on your days off so you give your body time to settle and get deeper rest.

Build time into your first day off for recovery

After multiple days of long shifts, plan to make your first day off about refreshing and taking time for yourself. Make your task list short on these days and save your more physical chores for another time. This is a good day to exercise, spend time with family or work on your hobbies.

Work two days in a row instead of three

Working three long days in a row can be more exhausting and harder to recover from. If you can space out your week to work only two days at once and the third after a couple days off, you may be more ready to cope with the demanding pace of the long shifts.

Eat healthy snacks and a balanced diet

Healthy food equals healthy fuel for longs work hours. Since nurses often get infrequent breaks or their meals are interrupted by patient emergencies, what you eat matters. Lean protein offers energy for long shifts, as do dark, leafy greens and whole grains. Snacking on nuts, fruit and veggies and complex carbs offers the most health benefits for nurses during their busy work hours.

Be mindful of the final hours of your shift

While nurses often become used to the long duration of their work hours, fatigue can set in, especially toward the end of a shift. Plan ways to compensate for the mental and physical strain toward the end of your hours. This could mean grabbing an extra cup of coffee between patients or snacking on an energy bar as you chart health information.


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