On Nurses Schedule: The Truth About Working 3 Days a Week

Having to explain a nursing schedule to non-nurses is, well, interesting. When we say that we “only” work three days a week, we are met with disbelief and incredulity. I mean, what other profession gets four days off a week, right? We can see the jealousy in their eyes as they hear of our oh-so-long “weekends” and so much time with our family. And at that point, we can let them believe all of that…or we can set them straight. Well, if you’ve been wondering, here’s the real truth about working three days a  week as a nurse.

Three days is never three days

There are two simple words that can help you show that you hardly ever work that short week that shows up on your schedule: Nursing Shortage. That’s right. As a nurse, you’re well aware that there simply aren’t enough nurses to go around. And what that means is that even when your schedule shows you working just a few days week, you’ll likely be called in to cover for someone at some point. In fact, it’s pretty much a given. And the problem is that nursing isn’t like other careers, like teaching, where a substitute can just be called in. Of course, a nurse replacement also needs to be qualified and certified to do the duties of a nurse. This means that when a coworker is sick or can’t come in for whatever reason, other nurses are going to be called in on their day off. So, a three-day week quickly turns into a four-day week or even a five-day week. It’s pretty unpredictable.

Even if your hospital or facility is properly staffed for regular days, there’s always the possibility that there is “extra business” that needs to be attended to. Certain times of the year are notorious for bringing in more patients and sometimes the number of patients exceeds the availability of nurses. Some specialties experience unpredictable surges that also require more help. For example, there could be an inordinate number of women giving birth on the same day, which means you could be called in to assist if there aren’t enough nurses on staff.

They are very LONG days

If you tell a person with a regular 9-5 job that you only work three days, they’ll immediately think of three 9-5 days of the work that they do, and that doesn’t really sound so bad! However, we never work an 8-hour shift. We will always be scheduled for 12-hour shifts, at the bare minimum. And we know that those 12 hours often turn into 13, 14, or even 15 hours of work in a single day. There’s a lot of follow-up work to be done, and even changing over to the next shift of nurses could require extra time, especially if there are a few unique cases on board. So instead of three normal workdays, we get three really long days where we don’t actually know when we will be able to clock out and go home.

The work during those days is extra hard

We know it isn’t totally fair to compare our job to others since every profession has its ups and downs. But we will stand by the fact that there aren’t that many jobs that can compare with nursing with respect to the emotional and physical toll it takes.

Physically, nursing is harsh on the body. We are constantly on our feet, walking with a purpose from room to room to check on patients, occasionally being forced into a sprint if an emergency is calling. We have to push beds and wheelchairs, lift patients (who are ever-increasing in size and weight as we face an obesity epidemic in the United States), and are constantly bending, kneeling, lifting, reaching, and twisting. And with all of this strenuous physical activity, we hardly ever have time to rest or eat during our shift. Breaks get shortened as needed, depending on the patients, so it’s difficult to say if we’ll ever be able to sit down for five minutes straight.

And if the physical toll weren’t enough, there’s also the emotional toll of nursing. We get to know so many wonderful patients and their families. We work with them closely and stick by their side as they fight for healing. We see people constantly in pain and trying their hardest to put on a happy face. And, of course, we see a lot of death, more than people should have to see. And yet we go back to work again and again because it’s worth it to us. Unfortunately, we often aren’t as good at taking care of ourselves as we do of others; the presence of depression, anxiety, and other mental and emotional problems are on the rise in the nursing population.

In the end, those three days are so taxing that they require pretty much a day each just to recover from the shift. That means three days working and three for recovery, which really only leaves us one full day of “free time.” Still feel jealous of our three day weeks?

It teaches us to appreciate what we have

Working those three very tough days (that can turn into more days if we aren’t careful) is really hard, but it does teach us a great lesson: The time we have is precious.

When we return home after a shift, we are grateful for the quiet of our home and the company of our family. That glass of wine in the evening means a little bit more to us than it does to those that don’t necessarily have the difficult job that we do. And those little moments with the ones we love are extra special because we don’t get that many of them. Because we are so busy when we are at work, we get to appreciate those times at home when we finally get to put our feet up and just…breathe.