If you ask your favorite nurse what a typical workday is like, you might get a laugh. No day is “typical” in the healthcare world, with all the different kinds of situations (both emergency and not) that you may be facing on any given shift. But if you’re thinking about becoming a nurse, it’s important to think about what to expect on the job. So based on stories of real-life nurses, here’s what you might expect to see and do on a typical shift. Nurses can work any time of day, but let’s look at a day shift’s responsibilities and tasks for a hospital nurse.
The early wake-up
Many daytime nursing shifts start early (often by 7 a.m.), so that means the snooze button is not your friend. Exercise, breakfast, coffee, shower—whatever the morning routine is, it may be happening well before the rest of the world is ready to motivate for the day. If you’re more of a “saunter in ten minutes late, check your email” kind of person, then nursing might not be the ideal career choice.
A hospital isn’t like a factory, where one shift ends before another starts and no communication needs to happen. The night nurses and the day nurses are a team, and making sure that patients get seamless care means that there’s a daily handoff of information at the start of every shift. The day nurse gets intel on what happened overnight, if patients have specific needs, or if there’s anything important that the nurse needs to know for his or her shift. This is also a chance for the nurse to read up on any physician notes, examine patient charts, prepare for their roster of patients, and review assignments and instructions. This may include checking email, coordinating schedules for the day with doctors, arranging for particular tests, or setting up equipment. Basically, everything that will keep the shift better organized happens up front.
This is also a chance for the nurse to check supplies and inventory too, to make sure they have enough for a shift. This is especially crucial in the emergency room or intensive care wards, where a high-stress situation could arise at any time and when you least want to run low on basic supplies. Everything the nurse does for a patient is usually noted, updated, and charted right away—you don’t want to risk not making an important note on a patient, then getting sidetracked by something else.
A lot can happen between shifts, so much of the morning is spent checking in with each patient (new or existing) and tracking their status. It’s common to do bloodwork in the morning, do glucose tests for diabetic patients, take vital signs, etc. Nurses also administer any scheduled medications for their patients during this time. If patients need to be prepped for procedures, it’ll often happen in the morning.
Patients that are ready to be discharged from the hospital are ready for their exit procedures, like getting doctor sign-off, removing IVs or other equipment, processing any last tests (like vital signs or bloodwork to confirm that they can safely be discharged), and educating patients (or their family members) on any follow-up care needs.
On these morning rounds, nurses also typically help their patients with daily living tasks, like eating breakfast (for patients who can’t do it themselves), bathing, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, or walking around.
Lunchtime for nurses is rarely a set time period. Obviously eating lunch is necessary if you want to keep up your energy, but having the time to do it can be a luxury when you’re dealing with an endless list of patients who have immediate needs all day. Many nurses grab a quick bite somewhere nearby (either in the hospital or close by) when they can. Lunchtime could be cut short by an emergency or just a bustling schedule. Meal times and personal time during the day are definitely at a premium for nurses, depending on the workload and the type of facility where you work. A clinic with set appointments is likely very different from a hospital or urgent care situation, when you could be needed at any time. Strategic food (like something you bring from home and can eat fast if necessary, or food you can grab from the cafeteria) is key.
Much like the morning rounds, afternoon rounds are kicked off by a check-in process to see if there are new patients, if patients have been discharged, or if any patent’s status has changed since the morning. Nurses do a new round of checking in with each patient, reviewing their charts for updates, making notes as necessary, and again—keeping close track of everything happening with his or her patients. Afternoon is also time for a new round of meds being distributed to patients, as well as any follow-up tests or previously scheduled procedures. Nurses help prep the patients as needed.
The afternoon might also include visiting hours, so nurses are often tasked with updating family members on a patient’s condition, educating them about what the patient’s medical needs will be once he or she leaves, and answering patient questions.
For a post-surgical ward, nurses may also start seeing an influx of patients coming out of surgery and recovery. The nurse follows up with surgeons and physicians as necessary, setting up each patient for his or her next tests, procedures, or milestones. The nurse is also likely to help with things like changing bandages or dressing and ensuring that these post-surgical patients are comfortable.
And if there’s time in between all of these many tasks, the afternoon may have some chances to catch up on administrative tasks like patient charts, making notes, or email. But like with lunch or personal breaks, there’s never really a guarantee that the nurse will have a full chunk of time to sit down and attend to these things.
Just like at the beginning of the day, the end of the day sees the shift handover process between day nurses and night nurses. There’s the nurse-to-nurse download of information, either in person or via detailed notes and patient charts. The day isn’t over just yet—the nurse needs to make sure that the transition to the next shift goes just as seamlessly as his or her own shift started in the morning so that patients are getting consistent care. That means checking and double-checking the patient information to make sure everything’s as accurate and clear as it can be.
Before leaving, the nurse may also start prepping for the next day’s shift: reviewing appointments, checking email, reviewing assignments. At that point, the nurse gets to leave, only to start the process again in about 12 hours.
What a nurse’s day is like can vary in a few different ways. For example, a home nurse will have a different set of tasks than a hospital nurse, who will have a different day than a nurse in a private practice. And no matter what a nurse does and where he or she does it, there’s always the unpredictability of working in the medical world. You always need to be sharp, and ready for emergencies or urgent needs—patients don’t care if you were out late last night or if you really just need a mental break for a few minutes to clear your head. It’s an incredibly demanding field, but can be a highly rewarding one.
And if you’re thinking about taking on this daily nursing life, we have the tools to help you get started.