Top 5 Nurse Scheduling Problems and How to Solve Them

Written by Megan Williams, MBA Freelance Writer, IntelyCare
Five nurses looking at the schedule for the current shift.

Nurse scheduling is a challenging responsibility, especially when you consider the uncertainty and shortages facilities navigate on a daily basis. Your most valuable and highest-performing nurse professionals might be just one bad schedule away from looking for a new job, leaving you short-handed or forced to fill the shift yourself.

However, there are proven strategies to help ease this burden. Nurse scheduling software and other tools that align with your goals can help you attract top-tier nurses who want to stick around, keeping you from being short-staffed and unable to provide high-quality patient care.

We’ll discuss the top five scheduling challenges for nursing facilities and how to solve them. First, we’ll take a look at the significant impact scheduling has on your ability to attract and retain your best nurses.

Subpar Scheduling Equals More Burnout, Stress, and Turnover

The top reasons nurses cite for their plans to leave their jobs are burnout and high-stress work environments, which can be aided — or exacerbated — by the scheduling process. For example, a random sampling of Michigan RNs working 12-hour days reported increased stress levels compared to RNs working 8-hour shifts. The American Nurses Association (ANA) also found that long shifts, night shifts, rotating shifts, and overtime increased nurse fatigue.

The role that shifts and scheduling play in nurse satisfaction and career decisions becomes much more clear when you look at the factors that cause burnout. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include:

  • A lack of control in their work. For nurses, this translates to little or no influence on schedule, assignments, and workload.
  • Extremes of activity in their duties. Both monotony and chaotic environments require constant energy to stay focused. When scheduling doesn’t take this into account, the potential for job fatigue and burnout is elevated.
  • An imbalance between work and life. If scheduling practices leave nurse professionals in a position where they don’t have the time or energy to spend with family, friends, or on activities they enjoy, they can be at higher risk of burnout.

This means that suboptimal decisions that schedulers make can quickly translate into staff feeling out of control, off balance, and as if they have few options to improve their working conditions. But by utilizing more creative scheduling for nurses, facilities have an opportunity to improve the nurse experience while making it easier on themselves to fill shifts.

How to Address Your Top Nurse Scheduling Problems

What you need is an approach to scheduling that not only reduces nurse burnout but also helps you fill shifts quickly and easily — alleviating the pressure on management. Improving scheduling starts with stepping away from pen, paper, and spreadsheets. Instead, listen to nurse needs and identify the right kind of technology that will support you in your goals, while keeping an open mind to concepts like self-scheduling for nurses.

1. Lack of Visibility Into What Your Staff Wants

Nurse professionals, thankfully, are relatively open about what they’re looking for and what they hate about their schedules. For example, complaints like these are common when it comes to nursing schedules:

  • 12-hour shifts (which often turn into 14-hour shifts)
  • Working alternating weekends
  • No guarantees in their schedules and having to float to other units without warning
  • Being put on call and not knowing whether they’ll have to come in to work when they thought they had free time

Implementing scheduling practices that leverage float pool and contract nursing options can help alleviate many of these concerns, while increasing the chances that a shift is accepted and decreasing the chance that it will be canceled. Creating a culture of openness and support will encourage your nursing staff to express their needs and concerns.

2. Not Understanding How Shifts Shape the Nurse Experience

You can help keep your nurse professionals happy and performing at their best by giving them sufficient time between shifts for rest and recuperation. Implementing effective wellness programs and encouraging restorative breaks are important, as are these scheduling strategies:

  • Encourage a “safety culture” where nurse professionals are free to say “no” to overtime.
  • Monitor nurse schedules for excessive shifts or flips between day and night.
  • When rotating shifts, rotate them in a forward pattern.
  • Cap overtime and keep adequate staffing levels that allow your nurses breaks.
  • Include four-hour shifts to cover patient and resident assignments during breaks.

3. Creating Schedules in a Silo

By involving staff in the nurse scheduling process you can help them feel as if they have more control over their work and their lives. In turn, this can increase their job satisfaction levels. This should include collaboration about shift patterns and lengths, as well as overtime. Facilities might even consider self-scheduling for nurses, although it requires detailed planning and can backfire if improperly implemented.

Not only will nurses appreciate your efforts to give them their preferred shifts, but your organization will benefit as a whole. When nurses have schedules that line up with their other responsibilities and interests, they’ll be better positioned to provide excellent patient care and less likely to experience burnout.

4. Lack of Scheduling Flexibility

Flexibility is a key driver of nurses deciding to leave for other jobs, especially when you consider the demands of the job. Prioritizing a flexible scheduling process will help your nurses achieve the balance they need when personal obligations arise or they just need some time to unwind and recuperate, according to the Journal of Nursing and Healthcare. It will also help you recruit and retain your top talent.

Granting your nursing staff flexibility allows them to create work-life balance. By fostering communications between your nursing staff, schedulers, and management, you can begin to envision what a flexible nurse schedule example might look like. Make sure to leverage contract and float pool options wherever necessary to achieve flexibility easily and simply for you and your team.

5. Not Using Optimal Nurse Scheduling Software

Nurse staffing decisions are complex and involve complex input from players, including management, individual nurse professionals, schedulers, and even patient and community needs. Without the right healthcare staff scheduling software, you miss opportunities to improve nurse retention, support patient safety, and establish your organization as a great place to work in the minds of the nursing community.

Look for platforms that connect you with pre-qualified, credentialed nurse professionals who can fill your toughest individual shifts and long-term contract assignments.

Get More Insights to Help You Retain Top Nurses and Drive Results

Overcoming these common nurse scheduling challenges will help you minimize the staffing pain points that plague most nursing facilities. Want to learn more about creative scheduling for nurses and other valuable insights? IntelyCare’s newsletter is packed with expert advice, tips, and actionable steps you can take to attract the best nurses and provide unparalleled patient care.