November 1, 2018

5 Tips for Creating a Perfect Nurse Schedule


Of all the industries in which employee scheduling demands are very involved and complex, putting together a nurse schedule stands in a league of its own in terms of the challenges that are presented to schedulers. As this is an industry that faces a chronic lack of staff and requires 24/7 coverage, creating nursing schedule templates is especially difficult. Managers are dealing with nurses who have different skillsets and certifications, a mix of part-timers and full-time staff. And on top of all practical challenges, there is another element that makes putting together great schedules absolutely vital—patient care.

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

Creating a nursing schedule template that will meet all of these standards is no easy task, but there are things that you can do to optimize your shift scheduling process. Here’s where to start.s where to start.

nurse scheduling software

Let nurses communicate their work preferences

One of the most important goals to keep in mind when creating a nurse schedule is to look for ways to create work shifts that will keep the staff both safe and satisfied. Most nurses tend to have a lot on their plates, even outside of their jobs. Many 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.

What better way to begin the scheduling process than to open the lines of communication with your nurses and actually ask them about their preferred working hours before creating schedules for them. Find out their availability preferences and if there are days when they’re usually unavailable to work. Record this data in a nurse scheduling software and, ideally, sync them with your HCM system of choice.

This simple change in behavior can lead to many benefits. Firstly, the nurses will appreciate the fact that managers care about their preferences and factor them in before putting schedules together. Secondly, the more information managers have about their staff’s preferences, the easier it will be to create great rosters, serving your organization and your employees.

Create a nurse schedule in advance

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

That’s why it’s recommended to start scheduling shifts as far in advance as possible. Healthcare 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 nurse schedule on the first try even if you have advanced, data-driven tools for forecast-based scheduling at your disposal.

Begin with carefully considering your employees’ availability and skillsets, but also have in mind the demand for healthcare services at your organization. Chances are, the schedule is going to need some editing as that week approaches and the scheduling needs of your nurses and your patients begin to crystallize. Still, there are some factors that you can predict and plan for.

Naturally, if your organization is still using outdated methods for creating shift schedules like pen and paper or Excel spreadsheet schedule templates, managers are wasting tons of time that could have been saved with a nurse scheduling software that allows managers to streamline the scheduling process in the cloud and in minutes. Moreover, they can instantly inform staff about schedule changes, instead of having to call them and redistribute the new schedule manually.

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

Since scheduling nursing staff seems to be a difficult endeavor no matter how much effort you put into it, try to find ways to take a little bit of the pressure off of your managers. One of the best ways to do that is to give the nursing staff the option of trading shifts.

This system works especially well in adapting to last-minute changes in the shift schedule. Instead of dragging out the process for hours—having the employee who can’t work contact the manager, after which they need to call all nurses to find a replacement—you can let your nurses simplify the entire ordeal.

However, it should be noted that even if allowing shift trades can be a perfect solution for ironing out smaller issues in your nurse schedule, it only works well if a manager or schedule maker is able to clearly and effectively monitor the entire process. They need to ensure that the right staff members with the right qualifications cover the shifts in question.

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 needs to be involved in the process and aware of the potential impact every proposed shift trade can have on the shift schedule.

nurse scheduling software

Make efforts to avoid scheduling overtime

Mandatory overtime is a huge issue in the nursing industry, which is a direct result of hospitals and other medical 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 work 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, leading to more and more errors being made on the job. This not only results in greater turnover rates among nurses, but also in declining patient care and patient satisfaction.

Is there a solution for mandatory overtime? Since there continues to be a shortage of qualified nurses in healthcare facilities around the country, probably not. However, that doesn’t mean that optimizing the nursing staff’s schedules to avoid unnecessary overtime and overloads is impossible.

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 a daily 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 would be able to make more educated, data-supported scheduling decisions that will help to 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.

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

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

A nursing staff manager should be obligated to dedicate 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, managers could also find creative and effective ways to keep track of the skills and certifications and easily reference them when creating schedules.

By having this staff and patient data on hand and easily available at all times, it should be much easier for managers to create an optimal nurse schedule that will work for your facility, based on both vital patient and staff data.


The nurse scheduling problem is one of the most challenging issues of workforce management. Including nurses as active participants in the process may seem counterproductive, but it can actually alleviate the stress and help make a helpful nursing schedule template that can be re-used with minor changes. Don’t forget that technology is your friend and that there are specialized solutions created specifically for staff scheduling issues. Although it may seem easier to stick with the tried and true systems, their ineffectiveness is the greatest risk of all—for the patients and the nurses themselves.