Of all the industries in which employee scheduling demands are very involved and complex, putting together work schedules for nurses stands in a league of its own in terms of the challenges that are presented to schedulers.

Not only is this an industry in which 24/7 coverage needs to be achieved, there are many more complexities that make scheduling nurses especially difficult. The days of simply pinning a schedule to the breakroom board are obviously gone. Staffing a nursing facility takes a lot of hard work and it’s very much a job that is never truly done.

You are dealing with nurses who have different skill sets and certifications, a mix of part-timers and full-time staff. On top of all of the practical challenges that come with scheduling nurses, there is another element that makes putting together great schedules absolutely vital – patient care.

The care you are able to provide to patients will depend greatly on how you are managing your nursing staff. Are you scheduling the right nurses with the right skills to care for the right patients? Are your nurses constantly overworked? Are your nurses unable to balance their personal lives with their shifts? All of these questions need to be asked and answered if you want to provide the proper care for your nurses and your patients.

Creating work schedules that will meet all of these standards needed for your nursing staff to be able to perform their jobs at a high level and guarantee proper care for patients is no easy task, but there are things that you can do to optimize your nurse scheduling process. Here’s where to start.

nurse scheduling software

Let Your Nurses Communicate Their Work Preferences

One of the most important goals to keep in mind when scheduling nurses is to look for ways to create work shifts that will keep your nurses both safe and satisfied. What better way to begin that process than to open the lines of communication with your nurses and actually ask them about their work preferences before creating schedules for them?

If you’ve been working in the healthcare industry for a while, then you know that most nurses tend to have a lot on their plates, even outside of their jobs. Many nurses have families that they need to look after and spend time with when they are not working. Many are still in nursing school and trying to balance their work responsibilities and aspirations for furthering their education.

Listen to the needs and wants of your nurses before creating schedules for them. Ask them to let you know about their availability preferences that can be stored in nurse scheduling software. Do they prefer working morning hours? Would they rather work night shifts? Do they prefer taking weekend shifts?

Asking your nurses about their preferences can lead to many benefits. Firstly, your nurses will appreciate the fact that you care about their preferences and ask them about these preferences before putting schedules together. Secondly, the more information you have about when your nurses prefer to work and can work will make it much easier for you to put together great work schedules. The more information you have at your disposal before you start scheduling, the better your schedules will end up being for both you and your employees.

Start Creating Work Schedules Early

As previously mentioned, the task of scheduling your nursing staff is practically a perpetual one. Even if you think you have an almost perfect schedule created, there is a real chance that you are going to end up editing it several times before your nurses actually begin working those assigned shifts.

That’s why it’s a very good idea to start scheduling shifts as far in advance as possible. Nursing is one of the industries in which you can almost be certain that changes in the schedule are going to be needed. It’s incredibly difficult to create a perfect schedule for nurses on the first try even if you have advanced, data-driven tools that are helping you to forecast your scheduling needs at your disposal. Chances are, the schedule is going to need some editing as that week approaches and the scheduling needs of you, your nurses and your patients begin to crystallize.

Naturally, if you are still using dated methods of creating your schedules like pen and paper or Excel spreadsheet schedules and you have to call your nurses and redistribute the new schedule manually every single time you need to make a change, you are wasting tons of time that you wouldn’t have to be wasting if you were using a nurse scheduling software that lets you do all this in the cloud and in minutes.

The bottom line? Start creating your nursing staff’s work schedule well ahead of time, because it’s probably going to take several iterations until it’s just right for everyone involved.

Allow But Closely Monitor Shift Trading Activities

Since scheduling a nursing staff seems to be a difficult adventure no matter how much effort you put into it, it’s always a good idea to try and find ways to take a little bit of the pressure off of yourself as a manager. One of the best ways to do that is to give your nursing staff the option of being able to trade shifts among themselves when they need to.

This system works especially well in adapting to last minute changes in your schedule. Instead of dragging out the process – having the person who can’t work contact you, after which you call all your nurses to see who can cover and then finally make a shift trade hours later – you can let your nurses simplify the entire ordeal for you.

However, it should be noted that even if allowing shift trades can be a perfect solution for ironing out smaller schedule issues, it only works well if the manager or schedule maker is able to clearly and effectively monitor the entire process.

Again, this is also best done by using a nurse scheduling software that enables your staff to request shift trades but doesn’t confirm those trade requests until the manager has seen, analyzed and approved them.

As great as a controlled trade shift trading system can be for you, an uncontrolled system can be equally detrimental to your schedule planning and creation process. Verbal agreements between your staff members who wish to trade shifts are not sufficient enough to guarantee clarity, the manager (or person who actually creates the schedule) needs to be involved in the process and aware of the potential impact every proposed shift trade can have on their schedule.

nurse scheduling software

Make Efforts to Avoid Scheduling Overtime

Mandatory overtime is a huge problem in the nursing industry, which is a direct result of hospitals and other types of nursing facilities simply not having enough nurses to cover shifts. This leads to the available nurses having to work incredibly long hours and a lot of overtime.

Studies have shown over and over again that nursing is one of the industries in which increased overtime can have negative effects on just about every aspect of the profession. Overtime results in nurses who are tired and on the verge of burning out, which obviously leads to not only greater turnover rates among nurses but declining patient care and patient satisfaction.

Mandatory overtime can have both physically and mentally detrimental effects for nurses. This then leads to more and more errors being made on the job and a lack of proper attention and care for patients, which then leads to further patient dissatisfaction.

Is there a solution for mandatory overtime? Since there continues to be a shortage of qualified nurses in healthcare facilities around the world, probably not. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that you can do as a manager or scheduler to try and optimize your nursing staff’s schedules as much as possible to avoid unnecessary overtime and overloads.

One of the best solutions is to take advantage of the technology that you have at your disposal in this day and age and use it to make better scheduling decisions. Use nurse scheduling software to base your scheduling efforts on real data. Keep track of the number of patients who are entering and leaving your facilities on an everyday basis and find trends within the data to figure out which hours of the day and week are the busiest or least busy for you and your staff.

With this type of data at your disposal, you are then able to make more educated, data-supported scheduling decisions that should enable you to create more optimal schedules that will help you avoid scheduling unnecessary overtime for your nursing staff.

Don’t Neglect Patient Acuity Levels

Another aspect of the nursing profession that makes the scheduling process so complex and demanding is that not every patient is the same. Managers have to think about acuity levels when it comes to making staffing decisions, which adds another layer of difficulty to the process.

If managers do not do this, then they risk not being able to offer patients the amount of care that their health problems demand. When a patient is considered to be a “high-acuity” patient, that means that they are dealing with a challenging medical condition, which means that their needs for care might be greater and that their problems might be less predictable.

Furthermore, high-acuity patients might also need to be cared for by nurses who possess specific skills and certifications that not everyone on your staff may have. Therefore, it’s not only important to always know and keep track of patient acuity levels, you should also be able to easily reference the skills and certifications that your nurses have and then schedule them accordingly to care for the patients who have special needs.

As a nursing staff manager, it should be your obligation to take the time to create an acuity scale and system that can be easily referenced and followed so that you are able to provide the right care for the right patients. Within this system, you should also find creative and effective ways to keep track of the skills and certifications of your staff and easily reference them when putting together your schedules.

By having this staff and patient data on hand and easily available to you at all times, it should be much easier for you as a scheduler to create staffing patterns and schedules that will work for your facility, based on both vital patient and staff data.