Nurse Scheduling 101: Tips From Scheduling Pros

nurse posing outside hospital

Nurse scheduling is no easy task. Variables such as 24/7 coverage, skill sets, certifications, and part-time/full-time designation complicate the issue even further.

Oh, and don’t forget patient needs! It almost seems like too much for one person to handle.

Inch is here to help. In this article, we discuss pro tips to help you dial in your nurse scheduling and what to look for in the tools you choose to make the job easier.

Table Of Contents

Common Nurse Scheduling Challenges

nurse scheduling

Effective nurse scheduling is notoriously difficult. It’s so difficult, in fact, that the “nurse scheduling problem” has been studied for decades in operations research — the field of using analytical methods to improve decision-making.

The trick with nurse scheduling is that it requires solving a puzzle while having “hard” and “soft” constraints.

Hard constraints are the absolutely essential things that the facility needs to operate. Beyond these factors, however, there’s a wide array of soft constraints that — while not essential — have a major impact on how well the facility functions and on staff morale and retention.

Let’s consider some of the challenges that medical facilities frequently encounter in scheduling their nursing staff.

1) Maintaining Coverage

There are currently no minimum nurse staffing requirements for medical facilities on the federal level, although federal regulations do require hospitals that treat Medicare patients to have adequate numbers of nursing professionals.

Because of this, many states have adopted their own rules on nurse staffing. For example, California has enacted a law limiting the number of patients that a single registered nurse can be assigned at once, and several other states have proposed similar laws.

These measures are meant to protect the quality of patient care from nurses being spread too thin. On the other hand, some hospitals fear that new staffing mandates enacted without a surge in staff availability will force them to reduce the number of inpatient beds.

Creating a schedule that meets all operational and legally-mandated coverage requirements is the most fundamental challenge of nurse scheduling.

2) Overcoming Staff Shortages

nurse writing down the records on form

As we hinted at above, the issue of maintaining adequate nursing staff coverage is exacerbated by the issue of staff shortages.

Staffing shortages have been a chronic problem in the nursing profession for many years. While other industries can often count on being able to expand their workforce if they can’t cover their staffing needs, medical facilities don’t always have this luxury with nursing staff.

For many medical facilities, not having enough nurses available for ideal staffing coverage is just an ongoing reality. A recent study by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing projects the situation will probably get worse.

This is due to a significant number of current nurses nearing retirement age, changing demographics requiring more nurses to care for an aging population, and low levels of job satisfaction causing nurses to leave the profession.

Effective nurse scheduling means not only making the most of the staffing resources you have but also maintaining employee job satisfaction so that you retain in-demand employees.

3) Preventing Staff Burnout

Staffing shortages, combined with the inherently demanding and stressful nature of nursing, create a serious problem with burnout in the profession. This has negative effects on both patient care and the mental and physical health of nurses themselves.

The American Nursing Association describes some of the shift patterns they consider detrimental to nurses’ health:

  • Working more than three 12-hour shifts, four 10-hour shifts, or five eight-hour shifts consecutively
  • Rotating shifts from days to nights (or vice versa) in the same 24-hour period
  • Rotating shifts of less than 12 hours with less than twice the number of hours of a standard shift in between (for example, an eight-hour evening shift, resting for eight hours overnight, and then coming back for an eight-hour day shift)

To maintain high standards of patient care and retain high-quality staff, it’s essential for medical facilities to implement scheduling practices that minimize unhealthy shift patterns and the risk of burnout.

4) Accommodating Staff Preferences

Although individual nurse preferences about which shifts they work and which colleagues they are scheduled to work with fall squarely into the category of “soft” constraints, medical facilities can’t afford to take these factors too lightly.

Although the nursing profession accommodates dedicated, giving individuals, nurses are still human beings with families and personal lives.

With good nurses in high demand, ignoring your staff’s preferences when it comes to scheduling may result in them finding employment elsewhere.

5) Avoiding Errors

Making a schedule that is correct, properly communicated, and understood by all can be a big challenge.

There could be any number of errors, such as:

  • Data accidentally being deleted from a schedule spreadsheet
  • Staff not being properly alerted that their schedule has changed
  • Confusing and difficult-to-use scheduling tools obscuring important information (i.e., nurses’ workload)

These and other types of human errors can negatively impact a medical facility in innumerable ways, from frustrated team members to gaps in staffing.

While such issues are not unique to nurse scheduling, they’re a greater concern due to staffing shortages, high-stress work, and the possible implications for patient well-being.

This can especially be true when you’re working with mobile nurses, who may be traveling to patients’ homes or other facilities as well as working odd hours.

Above all, a nursing schedule must be accessible, easy to use, and as error-proof as possible.

Pro Tips For Nurse Scheduling

Nurse checking in a patient

1) Publish The Schedule Well In Advance

Publishing your nurse schedule well in advance gives your team members plenty of time to:

  • Make any necessary changes
  • Plan their personal lives
  • Avoid conflicts that affect the rest of the team

If you publish the schedule the day before it goes into effect, your team won’t have time to organize their family and non-work activities.

While some employees will conscientiously suspend their other activities while they wait to see the schedule, they can’t be expected to do so forever. Others, especially those with family obligations, may simply give up waiting.

That can lead to situations where employees simply don’t show up for work and leave you with the heavy responsibility of finding replacements at the last minute.

Create, finalize, and distribute the schedule with plenty of lead time to make the entire nurse scheduling process more effective.

2) Build An On-Call Schedule As Well

Most hospitals have doctors and nurses who are on-call for nights, weekends, and holidays when the various departments are closed for scheduled cases but must still be capable of treating emergencies.

The on-call staff needs to be available at all times while they are on-call so they can come in to work on a moment’s notice.

Often, on-call nurses are paid one lower rate for hours spent on-call when they are not actively working and a higher rate (sometimes time and a half) if they are actually called in.

Apart from these typically required on-call staff, medical facilities may benefit from having a small pool of on-call nurses that could be called upon in case of an unexpected scheduling issue.

If you’ve managed a team of nurses for any length of time, you know that it doesn’t matter how well you plan, something will disrupt the schedule you’ve created.

One team member slated to work may have a family emergency to attend to. Another team member may get sick. Yet another may be running late. The list of possibilities is, literally, endless and can occur at any time.

That’s why we recommend building an additional on-call roster as part of your nurse scheduling efforts.

This may be as simple as a list of one or two individuals who are willing to come in on short notice if another team member can’t make it. Or, it may be as complicated as a complete second schedule that kicks into effect in the event of an emergency.

Experiment with different formats and choose the one that works best for your team.

3) Avoid Scheduling Overtime

nurse putting on her mask

As we’ve discussed, a result of the chronic nursing staff shortages is that some healthcare providers have implemented mandatory overtime. This has been shown to have a variety of negative impacts, including lower morale, higher stress, and more mistakes in patient care.

Many states, including California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas, have now enacted laws restricting mandatory overtime for nurses.

When it comes to nurse scheduling, overtime may be necessary now and then, but too much can affect team morale for the worse and seriously cut into your operating budget.

Avoid scheduling overtime whenever possible. When it is necessary, keep it to a bare minimum with the help of monitoring software (which we’ll discuss later on in this article).

With such software, you can set limits on maximum work hours — and instruct the software to notify you when an employee exceeds that number — so that no one accumulates overtime without your knowledge and permission.

4) Factor In Patient Acuity Levels

Some types of industries can treat team members as interchangeable when creating the schedule if all employees are qualified to perform the various tasks. At most, each shift will typically need a supervisor.

In other industries, varying tasks and different skill sets can add a significant layer of complexity to the scheduling process. This is certainly the case in nursing.

An important element of nurse scheduling is the intensity of care a given patient needs (a.k.a. patient acuity). Not everyone on your team can handle the higher acuity levels, so you’ll need to balance the schedule to ensure that you have the right skills available.

For example, nurses A, B, and C may be certified in a specific advanced form of care while nurses D, E, and F are not.

If you only schedule nurses D, E, and F for a given shift, the team will be without those advanced skills should an emergency arise.

Balance the work schedule so the group of nurses working every day is as well-rounded as possible.

5) Automate Nurse Scheduling With Software

One of the best things you can do to make your nurse scheduling efforts more effective is to automate the entire process with software.

Automation — a unique feature of the most advanced apps — uses data about the way your nursing staff works, user-defined parameters, and built-in artificial intelligence to help you select the best nurse for a particular shift.

For example, imagine that you need to put together a team for the afternoon shift on a specific day in May. With automation, you can instruct the app to sort through the variables you provide (such as skill level, experience, etc.), find a prospect, and insert them into the schedule.

Such automation can cut a significant amount of time off the nurse scheduling process and let you focus your energy on other aspects of the job.

What software makes all of these tips possible and easier to achieve? And, what other features do the best nurse scheduling programs contain? Read on to find out.

What To Look For In Nurse Scheduling Software

nurse scheduling on a laptop

With such formidable challenges to overcome — and more serious repercussions than in most industries — it’s no wonder that nurse scheduling has become synonymous with a decision-making puzzle.

But good scheduling software can make a big difference.

There are many different scheduling apps available, all with claims about their power to streamline the nurse scheduling process. Evaluating these claims and choosing the best tool can be confusing and intimidating.

Here are some essential features you should look for to simplify your choice.

1) Intuitive Interface

Nurse scheduling is hard enough — you don’t want the software you choose to make it even more difficult.

An intuitive interface goes a long way toward simplifying the process of putting together the best schedule for your team.

That interface contains the powerful features you need, and it will also be easy to understand and easy to use.

For example, advanced apps, such as Inch, let you:

  • Copy schedules between days or weeks
  • Create complicated shifts with ease
  • Drag and drop pre-set assignments
  • Tag employees with skills for fast searching
  • Control labor costs as you schedule
  • And much more…

All with an intuitive and easy-to-use calendar interface that allows you to incorporate the tips discussed in this article and manage your team like a pro.

With the right nurse scheduling software, you’ll have an easier time making the schedule and your staff will have an easier time understanding it, saving your facility time and miscommunications.

2) Cloud-Based Nurse Scheduling

Another necessary feature of good nurse scheduling software is accessibility. Even the best schedule is useless if your team can’t access it when they need it.

Posting a paper copy of the schedule might work for those who work on-site, but such copies are a real problem for those who work at home or on the go.

You might overcome this by handing out a paper copy in addition to, or rather than, posting a copy at the nurses’ station. But it’s likely that many team members have gone digital and would lose or overlook the hard copy altogether.

The best way to provide the highest level of access for all your nurses, day or night and wherever they may be, is to store the schedule (and other information) in the cloud.

With cloud-based software, like Inch, your team can simply log on from their preferred device to find out when, where, and on what they will work next.

3) Task Control

nurse scheduling with inch

Nurse scheduling is about more than just assigning the days and shifts your team members will work.

It also includes managing the specific tasks they’ll perform while on the job. This is especially important because overlooking even just one of these tasks can lead to very real problems later on.

So, whether your nurses work onsite in a hospital, offsite as home healthcare providers, or a combination of the two, assigning tasks and ensuring that they get done when they’re supposed to is an essential part of your job and theirs.

Nurse scheduling software, like Inch, makes this process easy and gives you the power to assign, distribute, control, prioritize, and monitor every aspect of your team’s responsibilities whether they work on-site or off.

And, because all of the data is stored in the cloud, your nurses can access the task list you create on any device so that they always know what they need to do next and where they need to go to do it, regardless of where they are at the moment.

4) Time Clock

No nurse scheduling software would be complete without a built-in time clock that tracks both your team’s full workday and each individual’s time on task.

Modern software allows you to record total work hours and time spent on a specific activity during the workday and also makes it possible to:

  • Turn any phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer into a time clock and allow employees to clock in and clock out from anywhere
  • Set up geofencing so that team members are in the right place when they start and end their work
  • Prevent early clock-ins and forgotten clock-outs
  • Reduce time theft
  • Export timesheets for simplified payroll processing
  • Much more…

These features streamline the way you organize and manage your nursing staff so that everything runs as smoothly as possible.

5) Communication Tools

Communication is essential for coordinating the activities of your team — whether you oversee two nurses or 200.

To make this as user-friendly as possible, choose nurse scheduling software that includes communication tools that everyone can access.

Some of the more advanced apps, like Inch, make it easy to:

  • Send messages to group or individuals
  • Find and communicate with volunteers within groups, locations, and even specific positions or skill sets
  • Share files, photos, videos, and links for more complete communication
  • Get information to the staff who need it without bothering the rest of the team
  • Cut down on emails and phone call interruptions

With these tools in hand, your team will work better than ever.

Select The Best Nurse Scheduling Software

The Best Nurse Scheduling Software

The unique constraints that medical facilities operate under combined with chronic staffing shortages in the nursing industry make nurse scheduling particularly difficult. Effective scheduling software can go a long way toward overcoming these challenges.

Although there are many options available, picking the right software for nurse scheduling comes down to a few fundamental criteria.

The best nurse scheduling software shouldn’t be complicated or expensive. Rather, it should give you everything you need to manage a team of any size (one to 100 or more) with just a few taps or clicks.

And it should give you the tools you need at a reasonable price (like free!).

Inch does all that and more.

Check it out today and find out why hospitals (and businesses of all types) large and small rely on our advanced software for all their workforce management needs.

For more free resources to help you manage your business better, organize and schedule your team, and track and calculate hours worked, visit today.

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