The Bedside Nurse’s Schedule: Is it really Family-Friendly?

Part of my attraction to becoming a nurse was being able to spend more time with my family. Most nurses I knew worked only three days a week, allowing them four free days to do what they wanted each week. I also appreciated that bedside nurses do not take their work home. Most bedside nurses are not on-call or still working when they come home. In my previous engineering career, I worked five days a week and was at work much longer than just eight hours a day. I would sometimes work night shifts and weekends. I was on call frequently or still worked even while home or on vacation. The thought of being free of the tether of work appealed to me as I pursued my career change to become a nurse. Now that I’ve been a bedside nurse for a few years, do I still feel nursing is as family-friendly as I initially thought?

12 hour Shifts

Like most bedside nurses, I am at work 12.5 hours every shift. (Most nurses who work 12-hour shifts are at their place of employment for 12.5 hours due to an unpaid 30-minute meal break). After adding commuting, showering, eating, and sleeping to that schedule, I can do little else on the days (or nights) I work. When I work, I see my daughter for only about an hour each day, regardless if it’s the day or night shift.

When I work days, I must leave the house before my daughter wakes to be at my hospital for a 7a shift. Dayshift ends at 7:30p, and if my commute is nice and short, I get home around 8p. I shower and eat as soon as I come home, but I don’t get to eat dinner with my daughter because it’s too late for her. I have about an hour at home before my daughter’s targeted bedtime at 9p.

When I work nights, I leave the house around 6:15p (since my commute for my new job is shorter now) to start my shift at 7p. My night shift ends at 7:30a, and I get home around 8a. I don’t usually see my daughter when I come home from nightshift because she gets to school before 8a. I shower, eat, and sleep. I target sleeping until 5p. If I get up earlier and my daughter comes home from aftercare before our usual pick-up time, I can spend about an hour with her before I get ready and leave for work.

If I break it down, there isn’t an ideal [12-hour] shift schedule to spend more time with my family on the days/nights I work. Dayshift may be slightly better because I don’t need a sleep/recovery day on my day off as I do after working a night shift. The real advantage of my 12-hour shiftwork is that I don’t have to work as many days each week as in traditional jobs.

Three Shifts Per Week

I can work three 12-hour shifts per week at my current hospital and be considered a full-time employee with benefits. (My prior hospital required a fourth shift one week per month to be considered full-time). Working only three days (or nights) per week means I can have more family time on my four days or nights off that week. The three-shifts-a-week schedule was beneficial for an unplanned trip at the end of March.

Unexpectedly, my husband’s last living grandparent died last month. The funeral service was in Hawaii on a Saturday morning. I hoped to go and support my husband and his family, but I needed to figure out if I could join him since I had just started my new job and had no vacation. My daughter could join him since the trip was during her Spring Break.

Due to my night shift nursing schedule, I joined the family in Hawaii without asking for time off of work. I worked a Thursday night shift – my third shift in a row – and packed as soon as I got home Friday morning. We left that same Friday afternoon and returned home on an overnight flight Wednesday night / Thursday morning. When we returned from Hawaii Thursday morning, I slept and went to work that evening – my first of three in a row. It was a grueling schedule, but I would not have been able to travel with my family for six days without needing time off if I had still worked as an engineer. What other jobs would allow for a personal 6-day trip within 1.5 months of starting?

I was (and still am) on orientation. I did not select my schedule to plan my trip. My supervisors set my schedule to match my preceptor’s. Fortunately, it worked out for me to travel to Hawaii without missing or rescheduling my orientation.

Though it was unplanned and under sad circumstances, my spouse, daughter, and I enjoyed spending time with extended family on our recent trip to Hawaii. I appreciate that my schedule allowed me to travel without taking time off. This pic was taken during on a coastal hike to Makauwahi cave.
The hike to Makauwahi cave splits off to a secluded beach. Though my husband and his family had been to the Kauai many times, they had never been to the cave. It was nice to join them in discovering new sites on the island. More importantly, I appreciated being able to celebrate the life of my husband’s maternal grandmother and support him, and be there for family.

I know many other nurses who plan extensive trips on their days between work or by taking only a handful of vacation days. A nurse working three shifts a week could schedule themselves such that they have eight days off between work shifts with no personal time off used. In my previous career as an engineer, I would only have been able to miss work for eight days in a row if I had used vacation days or other forms of leave. The one major caveat to getting desired days off without using vacation or personal time off is nurses still need to get their schedule requests approved or be able to self-schedule. Every nursing job I’ve had allowed me to self-schedule, but I know other nurses who don’t get to select their schedules. My supervisors granted my schedule requests about 98% of the time in my past jobs, so I mostly worked the days/nights I chose (once I was off orientation).

Heavy Workload

When determining if a nurse’s schedule is family-friendly, something else to consider is how much downtime one needs between shifts to recover from work. To schedule a block of days off, as I described above, one usually needs to work a block of days before and after, which can be exhausting. As a night-shifter, I need the day off after work to sleep or nap. My first day off after a block of night shifts is not a day I expect to spend much (awake and alert) time with my family. However, I’ve also had days after working some day shifts where I’ve felt like a zombie. I’ve never felt as drained (emotionally, mentally, and physically) after working as I do as a nurse. I’ve discussed this before in past posts and how sometimes I need a day or two to recover from shift work. Being an engineer could sometimes feel draining, but it was not consistently exhausting compared to being a nurse.

Weekdays Off

Despite needing recovery days, I like having weekdays off as a bedside nurse because it allows me to participate easily in some of my daughter’s school activities. My schedule has allowed me to attend 20-minute in-person parent-teacher conferences in the middle of a weekday afternoon without taking time off from work. I attended my daughter’s award ceremony on a random weekday morning I wasn’t scheduled to work. If my time off coincides with my daughter’s breaks or early dismissals from school, I get to spend time with her exploring our city and going to parks or museums instead of placing her in hard-to-find, expensive camps. I can attend weekday medical or dental appointments for myself or my daughter without taking any time off when I schedule them on days/nights I’m not working.

Weekends & Holidays

While it’s nice to have some weekdays off each week, my schedule requires me to work weekends and a handful of major holidays. I miss spending about half the weekends with my family every month due to work. I have to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas early or late if I want to celebrate with family. Some senior nurses at my last job managed to get out of working significant holidays, but no one got out of having work weekends. My current preceptor has worked for over 20 years, but like me, she must work four weekend-shifts each month. Even though I gained some flexibility for weekday activities, I lost spending half my weekends and holidays with family when I switched careers.

Working from Home

Another thing I lost when I became a bedside nurse is the ability to work from home or remotely. I must take time off work if I’m sick, in quarantine, or my daughter is ill (and I stay home with her instead of my husband). I cannot do my job and care for my patients remotely. Remote nursing jobs exist, but not for bedside nurses. On the other hand, being unable to work remotely can be a positive thing for work-life balance because it allows me to separate from work compared to when I was an engineer.

Wait – Let me rethink that. One day in Hawaii, I attended paid mandatory training for my orientation. And if I’m being candid, I spend hours of unpaid time reviewing topics or concepts to prepare for work when I’m not at work. Education and review is my coping mechanism for the stress I face as a novice nurse. Educating myself or doing unpaid training outside of work may persist even as I become more experienced. Nursing requires continuing education. However, I’m genuinely interested in learning about my patient population and ways to provide the best care or be a better nurse. There are always new techniques, equipment, or updated evidence-based practices to learn. I can only sometimes research or learn about new nursing practices during work hours. So there may not be a complete separation from work when I leave the hospital, but it’s an improvement compared to my life as an engineer.

Job & Schedule Variety

I wanted to accurately portray what it’s like to work as a bedside nurse while having a family with this post. However, if a bedside nurse chooses, they do not have to work the traditional three 12-hour shifts per week that I do. Bedside nurses can have one or multiple per diem (one day a week) jobs or work 8 hours a day, five days a week (my last hospital offered 8-hour shifts on the Post-Partum unit). Or, bedside nurses can become travel nurses and work 13-week contracts or whatever they choose to negotiate. There are so many scheduling options out there for nurses. A nurse doesn’t even have to work bedside! A nurse can select a job or schedule that works best for their family and personal life.

The Reality

While nursing can be appealing due to the work schedule, I wanted to review the reality of balancing family and work as a bedside nurse. Despite some drawbacks, my nursing schedule can be family-friendly overall. Is my bedside nursing schedule MORE family-friendly than when I was an engineer? Nope. But I love being a nurse. I love working with my patients and their families and learning, teaching, and helping others. If you are considering nursing as a profession, I hope this blog post gives you a better idea of what a nursing schedule is like and if this profession will allow you to balance work with your family or personal life. Good luck on your journey!