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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ogilby

How to Maintain Work-Life Balance as a Nurse

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Nurses have a work schedule that differs from most of the population. We typically work holidays, weekends, and 8 or 12 hour shifts (sometimes three 12-hour shifts in a row). We often work night shift - only to work day shift the following week. Typically, a nurse only knows her schedule for four to six weeks at a time, if not less.

As nurses, how can we achieve work-life balance with a schedule that fluctuates so much? How do we respond to invitations to weddings, parties, and events in 3 months when we don’t know what days we’ll be working at that point? Don’t even get me started on how our summers fill up when we work every other weekend… by May, almost every open weekend of mine are filled until August!

I know how you feel! I worked as a “floor nurse”, as we call ourselves, for six years (working full time and school part-time) before I graduated with my master’s and took on a new nursing job. This included 8 months of “swing shifts”, flipping from night to day shift in the same week (I know, I know, many of you had to do that for much longer or permanently). I also worked day/evening rotating shifts until I finally settled into 8 and 12-hour day shifts.

There are many ways to improve your work-life balance as a nurse – you just need to find what works for you. Strive to achieve weekly balance (instead of daily balance) that includes self-care and social activities. Create time in your off days or before or after your shift for exercise that you love doing. GET ENOUGH SLEEP. Find a support system that understands and accepts your schedule. Know yourself including your goals, needs, and wants, and you will find it easier to establish boundaries and create time for things that bring you fulfillment and peace.

Why is it important to have work-life balance?

Who here has heard of burnout? *Raises hand*. Nurse burnout is a physical, mental, and emotional state that is caused by chronic overwork and lack of job fulfillment and support. If you are being affected by burnout, you might feel exhausted or cynical, and have a low sense of personal accomplishment (even though you’re awesome!). Sound like you or someone you know? That’s because over 15% of all nurses report symptoms of burnout, and 41% of nurses are un-engaged (emotionally checked out, don’t work well as a team, and have lowered morale). Yeah, it’s a problem.

You’re at an even higher risk for burnout if you’re a woman, work in a high stress environment (I’m talking to you, ED, Trauma, and ICU nurses), are single or divorced, work full-time, and are a new grad. It is SO IMPORTANT to set yourself up for success by taking charge of your work-life balance, and in turn, your health. This will improve your resilience and decrease your chances of leaving the bedside due to burnout.

Create self-care routines for yourself. Sleep when you need it, and don’t feel shame for needing to rest.

It helps to think about balancing your week - not your day - when working 12-hour shifts. It can be difficult to fit self-care or exercise into an already exhausting day. Instead, think about your week as an opportunity to fill in gaps with self-care and productivity. On one day off, you might clean, grocery shop, and prep meals for the week. On your next day off, you might exercise, call a friend, or take a bubble bath.

If you can fit one thing in daily, make it exercise. Exercise benefits have been well established for many, many years, ranging from improved mental health to a reduction in heart disease, diabetes, and early mortality. Even if you can only manage a 10-minute yoga video on YouTube or walking your dog around the block, your health will improve.

Studies show that running just one mile a day improves focus, reduces depression, lowers risk of some cancers, and improves heart health. For less than 20 minutes a day, you can gain all these benefits! Exercise has also proven to improve mood and sleep quality, which is so important for nurses (not to mention swing shifters!).

SLEEP. Take naps if you need to. Fragmented sleep is better than no sleep! Invest in black out curtains for your bedroom (inexpensive and worth it). You can also wear a sleep mask to block light. This is extra important for nurses who work shifts other than day shift - Melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep, gets turned off when your body detects light. The darker your room is (including electronics), the higher quality of sleep you'll get.

Ask for help and find a supportive network. Plan and multitask when you can.

Can you identify a support system to help get you through a stretch of workdays or share childcare responsibilities? This can sometimes make or break a stressful situation. Ask a spouse/roommate/parent/friend if they would be willing to tackle specific chores, either all the time (they always cook, you always vacuum, etc.) or on days that you work. When I was working full-time and attending school, I often had 14 day stretches where I was either at work or at my clinical rotation. My stress dropped immensely when someone stepped in and grabbed groceries or walked our dogs.

To save time in the kitchen, cook multiple meals at once or double the veggies and grains you cook (see this post for more ideas like this) to use in future meals. If you have leftover roasted vegetables, grains, or proteins, throw them on a salad and pack it for lunch! Fruit is also an easy grab-and-go snack – I used to scarf down a banana around 10am in the break room if I had finished my morning med pass.

One of the most important supportive networks I have found throughout my career is my nurse friends. It’s hard to talk to your husband or family member about your day when they can’t relate to it. On the other hand, I could call my girlfriend (also a nurse) and vent to her about my struggles placing a Foley that day or the constant call lights going off for pain meds. It didn’t matter that she was a Peds nurse and I, MedSurg. It mattered that we understood each other’s language and could empathize.

Are you also going to school while working full or part-time? If you can find a friend or study buddy who is also a nurse and a student, you’ll have that much more in common. Many nurses study in their free time to advance their degree, study for a certification exam, or learn more about their specialty. Your coworkers will empathize with you. Nurses tend NOT to give each other a hard time for not being able to go out for social outings… they know what it’s like to be exhausted or have other priorities.

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH POSITIVE, SUPPORTIVE PEOPLE. Who has energy for haters?! Drama!?!?! Not me, and not you. Surround yourself with people who are kind, down to earth, and understanding. They will still be your friend even if you can’t make it to their baby shower. When you can’t make it to an important event, do other things to show that you care about them. It’s amazing how much a quick “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m thinking about you!” text can go. I’ve had friends tell me they were in an emotional funk and were relieved to get my message. You never know what people are going through.

Become comfortable with saying no and explaining your schedule. Establish boundaries.

You’re probably already getting pretty good at this. You often have to say “I’m not sure if I can make that, my schedule doesn’t come out for another 3 weeks” or “I work every other weekend, so I won’t be able to make your bridal shower/birthday party/bar crawl/graduation party/fill in the blank. But I’ll try!”. For some, this is easy – they savor their alone time, and it’s worth working weekends to have peace during the week. For others, this is one of the most difficult things to deal with. Hopefully, you’ll eventually become more comfortable with saying no to events and not feeling guilty for doing so.

How do I set boundaries? Night shifters can make it clear to friends and family that you will likely never be available before 4pm. Some day shifters like to be in bed by 8pm the night before. Have you ever called someone who works evening shift to see if they want to come in early? 9am is like midnight to them. Whatever schedule it is that works best for you, be honest about it and be clear about your availability. People will respect you for taking care of yourself, and you might even be setting a good example for someone else!

Know yourself and your goals, needs, and wants.

Create priorities. What is important to you? Are you trying to save money for a house? Is a healthy lifestyle your priority? What about time with family or friends? Make a list of things that are important to you and decide what is necessary for your goals. You’ll have a concrete list to look back on if you second guess yourself.

If family is high on your priorities, you might visit or share a meal with them on your day off. If a social life with your friends falls lower on your priority list than your health, you might say no to happy hour on occasion to get more rest or to squeeze in a workout.

By knowing your priorities, you will find a rhythm that integrates best with your goals. Instead of feeling guilty for missing an event, hopefully you feel at peace for taking care of yourself in the long term.

Be positive – think about what is great about your schedule and your career!

What are some things that you enjoy about being a nurse? What do you enjoy about your current schedule? Does it allow you to see loved ones at a frequency that a Monday through Friday job would not? How about stacking your days so you can take 10 days off without using any vacation time? This is surely one of the things I miss the most about my M-F job.

Days off during the week are wonderful times to be productive without distractions. Grocery stores are nearly empty at 8am on a Tuesday, and it is way easier to make time for doctor appointments/getting your oil changed/being home for the dishwasher repair man with a nurse’s schedule.

By continually striving to turn your attitude positive, you will decrease anxiety and improve resilience. Your friends, family, and supportive network will be more accepting of your boundaries and availability if they know that they keep you a happy, healthy person!

The saying, “you can’t have it all” certainly holds true when it comes to a nurse’s work-life balance. However, it’s important to consider everything you do have! You care for patients EVERY DAY and make their lives better. You positively impact the lives of so many people - from the patients you care for directly and their family members to other healthcare professionals, such as your peers. It’s a perfect example of the butterfly effect. I remember thinking during times I questioned myself or my career choices… at least I know I am giving back to the world. If that’s not worth it, I don’t know what is.

I’ll end with this quote by the amazing Maya Angelou.

“As a nurse, we have the opportunity to heal the heart, mind, soul and body of our patients, their families and ourselves. They may not remember your name, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou


Happy Nurses Week!!!

Becker's Healthcare shares self-care tips from 27 nurses (including me!) in this article. What are your self-care tips? What makes you feel balance between work and life with a nurse's schedule?

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