Masked nurse forming a heart with her hands

A Day in the Life of a Nurse: What It’s Really Like on the Job

Typical Nursing Schedules, Duties, & Responsibilities

Masked nurse forming a heart with her hands

Ever wondered what a typical day looks like for a nurse? Many RNs will joke that there’s no such thing. Almost every nursing shift brings new challenges and opportunities to use different skills, which is part of what attracts many people to the profession in the first place.

Despite the sometimes-unpredictable nature of the job, there are certain things most nurses do daily. To help you get an accurate picture of what life is like for an average nurse, let’s explore some details, like typical nurse schedules and everyday nursing responsibilities before, during, and after a shift.

Nursing is an incredibly rewarding career, but prospective nurses need to understand the unique demands of the job. After covering nursing schedules and daily duties, we’ll also discuss some of the challenges of nursing and explore strategies nurses can use to maintain their physical, mental, and emotional health.

Looking to learn more about specific nursing careers and discover which ones have the highest earning potential? Check out our list of the highest-paid nursing jobs.

Typical Nurse Schedules

Nurse schedules vary somewhat between employers and healthcare facilities, though most nurses work 8-,10, -or 12-hour shifts. 12-hour shifts have become increasingly common, with many nurses working four days on and three days off.

As for breaks, they can be as unpredictable as anything else about nursing. Most nursing shifts will include a scheduled meal break—usually 30 minutes—but nurses may or may not be able to step away at that exact time based on what’s going on with their patients. Because of this, many nurses like to pack quick snacks they can grab for a burst of energy whenever time allows.

Many hospitals and emergency-care clinics are open 24 hours a day, meaning nurses are needed around the clock. Depending on the time of day (or night) they’re working, a typical shift for a nurse may look very different. Let’s look at the differences between nursing shifts and when they usually occur.

Day Shifts

Day shift nurses work most of their hours between 7 am and 3 pm. The day shift is when most of the hustle and bustle happens around the hospital. This is when non-emergency surgeries are happening, and physicians are ordering lab tests that often require support from nursing staff. Patients are also more likely to be awake or to have visitors.

Nursing day shifts are a great way to broaden your skills and knowledge by learning from physicians and nursing management staff, who primarily work during the day. You might prefer working day shifts if you crave a faster-paced environment and lots of interaction with patients and colleagues.

Evening Shifts

Also called swing or relief shifts, nurses who work evening nursing shifts have most of their hours scheduled between 4 pm and midnight. This handoff from the day shift is critical, as the nurses taking over must be brought up to speed with any important developments in their patients’ condition.

Evening shifts are a great way to combine the faster pace of the day shift with the independence and slower patient intake of overnight shifts. They also allow a relatively standard sleep schedule and offer nurses some free time during the day before coming to work.

Overnight Shifts

Nurses working overnight shifts are usually on the clock between midnight and 6 am, give or take a few hours. The pace of overnight shifts depends mainly on the department in which you work. Emergency departments see plenty of action around the clock, while overnight shifts in inpatient wards mostly require monitoring patients and responding to emergencies.

Adapting your sleep schedule to work through the night can be challenging, which is why many hospitals pay more for overnight shifts. Because there are fewer physicians and supervisors around, overnight nurses often have to be self-reliant and make quick decisions to protect their patients’ health. Many nurses enjoy this challenge and the opportunity to take charge when unforeseen situations arise.

Asian nurse with a stethoscope

Daily Duties and Responsibilities of a Nurse

What Does a Nurse Do on a Daily Basis?

Let’s look at a typical workday for a nurse, from the moment they arrive at work to the end of their shift.

Clocking In: Starting Your Shift as a Nurse

Punctuality is critical for nurses, as showing up late for your shift could cause patient-safety concerns due to overworked colleagues. Arriving at work a few minutes early and properly prepared is essential. Before they clock in, nurses must plan to wash their scrubs, pack a lunch and some snacks, and get into the right mindset before the start of their shift.

Once they’re on the clock, most nurses first confer with their colleagues from the previous shift. It’s essential to stay current on any changes in your patient’s condition that could impact their needs moving forward. After being briefed by the previous shift, nurses will usually review their patients’ treatment schedules to plan and prioritize their time for the hours ahead.

Duties & Responsibilities During Your Shift

While nurses’ daily responsibilities may vary depending on their specialty and workplace, certain essential tasks are staples of almost any nursing shift.

Observing & Evaluating Patients

When people are in the hospital, nurses are their first line of defense in the case of a life-threatening emergency or any change in their condition that requires clinical intervention. During their shifts, nurses make regular rounds of their patients to monitor vital signs and record detailed documentation of how each patient’s condition is progressing.

Nurses also communicate with alert patients to understand their symptoms and pain levels and educate them on what to expect with certain conditions and procedures.

Administering Medication

Commonly called “med passes,” the scheduled delivery of medication to each patient under your care is an essential responsibility that requires multitasking skills and attention to detail.

Each patient will have their own medication schedule for everything from pain management to infection control. Even seemingly small mistakes in timing, dosages, or administration of these medications can lead to severe consequences, which is why nurses must have extensive training in pharmacology and medication management.

Collaborating With Other Providers

Healthcare is a team effort, and supporting your colleagues—whether they’re physicians, fellow nurses, or administrators—is one of the most important functions of any nursing role. Frequent collaboration with other healthcare providers is critical to providing outstanding care and responding to unexpected incidents that are bound to arise.

Supporting your fellow providers may involve serving as a second (or third) set of hands during an emergency, taking blood or tissue samples for lab evaluation under a physician’s orders, or simply keeping an eye on your colleague’s patients so she can run to the bathroom or grab a quick bite to eat.

Clocking Out: Finishing Your Shift as a Nurse

At the end of your nursing shift, you’ll hand over the patients under your responsibility to the nurse replacing you on the clinical floor. Ensuring the steady, seamless flow of information and accountability maintains continuity of care for each patient, with all relevant details easily accessible for any provider who needs them.

Handover involves sharing important context about each patient, including necessary details like medication allergies, recent patient complaints, and risk factors for their medical situation. It also consists of documenting exactly when and to whom responsibility for each patient is transferred, whether between nurses in the same ward or between departments as a patient is relocated within the hospital.

As they’re ready to finish handing off their patients, nurses usually double-check each patient’s medical documentation one final time before clocking out. Being absolutely sure that each patient’s chart reflects the latest knowledge about their condition helps minimize adverse events and complications that can happen when healthcare providers miss essential information.

Young nurse looking through a window

The Challenges of Nursing

Saving lives and caring for others as a nurse is extremely rewarding but also challenging at times. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common difficulties most nurses face throughout their careers, followed by some coping strategies used by many successful nurses.

Long Hours

With many nurses working 12-hour shifts and 50 hours per week or more, it takes conscious effort to recover both physically and mentally after a nursing shift. Exhausted nurses make mistakes that can endanger patients, so getting the rest and nutrition you need to stay focused during a long shift is vital to being the best provider you can be.

Physical Demands

Nursing can be a physically taxing career. Most nurses walk an average of several miles every shift, interspersed with plenty of lifting, bending, squatting, and other intense physical activity. Comfortable, supportive footwear is key, as most nurses are on their feet for most of their shifts. And by investing in their well-being with a balanced diet and regular exercise, nurses will be better prepared to withstand the physical demands of the job.

Mental & Emotional Toll

For all the heartwarming success stories they experience, nurses also frequently encounter patients who are having one of the worst days of their lives. They’re regularly involved in delivering difficult news to patients and their families and often witness the disturbing aftermath of serious illnesses, injuries, or even crimes.

Nurses must be able to compartmentalize the tragedies they encounter on the job and develop healthy habits to deal with the stressful situations they routinely experience at work.

Nursing Coping Mechanisms

To manage the demands of their career, nurses can set themselves up for success by intentionally developing good habits in a few key areas.

Time Management

Balancing their career and personal life is essential for any nurse, especially those who work long shifts. By the time you get a decent night’s sleep on days when you’re working a 12-hour shift, there are only a few hours left to do household chores and enjoy some free time. Making the most of your days off is important to prevent being overwhelmed by non-work tasks after a long day in the clinic.


Nurses tend to be givers by nature, and they can be notorious for prioritizing everybody but themselves. But for nurses to avoid burnout and succeed long-term in their careers, they must make an effort to take care of themselves both physically and mentally. Eating a balanced diet, getting quality sleep, meeting with a therapist, and pursuing fulfilling hobbies and relationships are just a few of the ways nurses can care for themselves when they’re not on the clock.

Support from Colleagues

In a hectic hospital environment, nurses have to have each other’s backs, and building good relationships with your colleagues is one of the best things you can do for your career. In addition to sharing clinical skills and knowledge, you’ll be able to support each other emotionally in tough situations. When you’re dealing with a really difficult day at work, knowing you don’t have to face it alone can be the thing that gets you through to the other side.

The decision to become a nurse is a big one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Knowing what to realistically expect from a career in nursing is essential to making an informed decision about whether it’s right for you.

Nurse holding a motivational sign

Take the First Step to Become a Registered Nurse Today

Whether you’re more excited than ever to attend nursing school or you’ve simply gained a newfound respect for registered nurses, hopefully, you have a better understanding of what nurses do every day and some of the things they go through on the job.

If you’re ready to take on the challenges of a career in nursing—and reap the rewards that come along with it—the next step is enrolling in nursing school. Learn more about how to become a Registered Nurse, and how the BSN program at Provo College can put you on the fast track to a fulfilling and successful healthcare career.