Night Shift vs. Day Shift Nursing: The Pros and Cons of Each

Night shift The public’s need for healthcare obviously doesn’t stick to strictly 9–5 “business hours.” The always-on model of our healthcare system is fantastic for anyone who has had a health emergency on a holiday evening, but it can be more of a mixed bag for the healthcare workers staffing it.

If you’re exploring a nursing career, it’s only fair to wonder about the contents of that mixed bag and whether that’s something you can handle. If you’re looking for more info on the potential pros and cons of working night shifts versus day shifts as a nurse, we’ve got you covered. We dug into the research on shift work and spoke with nurses who’ve walked the walk at all hours of the day to gather important insight into the realities of these shifts

Night shift vs. day shift: What is a shift differential?

While not universally offered, one substantial positive for night owl nurses is the potential to earn “shift differential” pay.

A shift differential is additional pay workers receive for working “undesirable” shifts like nights, weekends or holidays. This financial incentive can help employers ensure adequate staffing levels are maintained during these times.

How shift differential pay is calculated will depend on the employer. It’s often either an additional flat hourly rate added on top of base pay (ex: everyone working overnight earns an additional $7/hour) or as a fraction (ex: everyone working overnight will earn their standard hourly rate times 1.25 for that period).

Additionally, the differential amount can vary according to the specific hours. For example, evening or relief hours might include shifts started between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., night hours might start at 7 p.m. and weekend hours might start at 3 p.m. on Fridays. This means a night-shift nurse working on a weekend might earn both night differential and weekend differential pay, depending on their employer’s terms.

As you can probably imagine, the potential to earn substantially more for taking on unconventional hours can weigh heavily when determining if working night shifts is worth it. Even if you are hired as a day-shift nurse, it’s worth reading up on your employer’s shift differential policies. You may want to pick up hours outside of days for some extra cash.

Night shift vs. day shift: Work culture

While a shift differential can be easily calculated, differences in work culture cannot. Days at hospitals tend to be bustling with providers, consulting providers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, social workers and other healthcare professionals that don’t typically have a presence on overnight shifts. Doctors tend to place a lot of orders during the day. Between placing Foley catheters, prepping patients for surgery, making sure patients get their imaging done and taking their medicine, it might be hard for day shifters to catch a break for lunch or grab a coffee. More people from the management ranks being around during the daytime can also mean more micromanagement—and the minor annoyances that can come with it.

The pacing of work at night varies according to the department. Nurses in the emergency department receive orders and complete tasks whenever patients present to the ER. Nurses on an inpatient floor are mostly tasked with making sure patients get the rest they need to heal and dealing with emergencies as they arise.

While it can be nice having fewer “extra” people around, it also means taking on more responsibility when emergencies do happen.

“With limited resources around, often the nurses only have each other. That bond is very strong,” says Megan Brunson, MSN, RN, CNL, CCRN-CSC and CVICU nurse who has been working the night shift regularly over the span of her career. A smaller crew can also mean stronger friendships. “There tends to be a tighter camaraderie when you’re ordering lunch at 1 a.m.,” says Sean Marchese, MS, RN at The Mesothelioma Center.

Brunson also feels like working the night shift gives the opportunity to practice at her highest scope. Providers aren’t constantly around so when emergencies arise, nurses perform all the nursing interventions they can and call the doctors. “On night shifts, many times I am the sole advocate for the patient,” Brunson says.

With that comes additional autonomy. This can be a great shift for new nurses as they’re pushed to learn new skills and grow more confident with handling the emergency situations that may arise.


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