Nurses’ Work Schedule: The Truth About Working 3 Days a Week

Having to explain a nursing schedule to non-nurses can be somewhat complication due to how irregular it can be. When nurses say that they “only” work three days a week, they can be met with jealousy and misunderstanding. Those who do not work 12-hour (or longer) shifts, may think that only working three days a week is a cakewalk. 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 rarely three days

There is a simple explanation to why nurses don’t always work just 3 shifts a week: nursing shortage. The nursing shortage has been a problem for a while and is continuing to get worse for a variety of reasons. And what that means is that even when a nurse is scheduled for three 12-hour shifts, they will likely be called in to cover extra shifts at some point. In fact, it’s pretty much a given. So, a three-day week quickly can become a four-day week or even a five-day week. It can be pretty unpredictable.

Even if your hospital or facility is properly staffed for regular days, there’s always the possibility that there are more patients to care for than staff working. There are certain times of the year are notorious for bringing in more patients, such as flu season, 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 increase in 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 LONG days

If you tell a person with a regular five days a week, 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, the shifts are 12.5-12 hours and can often turn into 13-14 hour shifts. There is 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 complicated cases on board. So instead of three normal workdays, they are three really long days where they do not actually know when they will be able to clock out and go home.

The work is tolling

The long days can be physically and emotionally tolling.

Physically, nursing is harsh on the body. Nurses are constantly on their feet, walking quickly around the unit to check on patients, and occasionally being forced into a sprint if an emergency is calling. Nurses have to push beds and wheelchairs, lift patients who are unable to move themselves, and are constantly bending, kneeling, lifting, reaching, and twisting. And with all of this strenuous physical activity, nurses hardly ever have time to rest or eat during their shifts. Breaks get shortened regularly or not taken at all depending on the patients, so it’s often difficult to sit down for five minutes straight.

And if the physical toll weren’t enough, there’s also the emotional toll of nursing. Nurses get to know so many wonderful patients and their families. They work with them closely and stick by their side as they fight for healing. And, of course, nurses see a lot of death and suffering, and yet we go back to work again and again because it’s worth it to us. Unfortunately, nurses often aren’t as good at taking care of ourselves as they 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.”

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Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a registered nurse and a nurse educator. She earned a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and an MS in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Jenna earned a PhD in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University where she researched the moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the relationship of stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students.