One great thing about being a travel nurse is that you have the ability to see how multiple hospitals and units work. You see the good, the bad, the ugly and pretty quickly you come to the realization that every unit does something great… and there’s always something that they could be doing better. As a traveler you also realize that not all hospitals are created equally and some take advantage of their nurses more than others. Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I can confidently tell you what questions you should be asking in your nursing interview if you’re looking to work in a hospital that values work-life balance.
10+ Questions to Ask if You’re a Nurse Looking for Good Work-Life Balance
Before reading further, I think that we should define what “work-life balance” is. For starters, work-life balance can and will look differently to everyone. I encourage you to paint a picture of what work-life balance is to you so that you can decide what you want out of work and which questions will best get you to what you want. For purposes of this post, “work-life balance” will generally be defined as working in a hospital that supports nurses inside AND outside of work. These hospitals prioritize PTO, give adequate sick leave, and care about each nurse as a person, beyond what they can offer to the hospital.
“Can You Please Differentiate Between PTO and Sick Time?”
If you’re looking to work in a hospital that gives nurses adequate time off from the bedside and doesn’t “punish” you for being sick, asking about PTO versus sick time is an important question. Some hospitals (generally on the West coast), will not only allow nurses to accrue PTO as they work, but they also offer a set number of hours or an earned number of hours of sick time. This means your PTO requests are not affected when you call in sick. On the flip side, most hospitals combine your PTO and sick leave and don’t differentiate between the two. Meaning if you were to call in sick, that comes out of your PTO bank, which could be an issue if you have a big trip (or something) planned.
“How Easy is it to Take Vacation? Does it Go By Seniority? How Much Time Can You Request off at Once?”
If you’re a nurse who prioritizes taking vacation (me!), then you’ll want to ask a variation of this question. Start by asking, “How easy is it to take vacation and how do you sign up?” I would make sure to find out how many nurses are allowed to go on vacation at once, if there are any periods throughout the year where you aren’t allowed to take vacation, and how vacation time is given. Is it given by seniority? Is it first come first serve? Do you have to have your vacation planned out months in advance or can you randomly take PTO a couple weeks before?
I also like to ask how much time is allowed to be requested off at once. I’ve worked at some hospitals where you can ask for two weeks, three weeks, or more. Everywhere has a different policy.
(Pst… if you value your vacation time but don’t necessarily have the PTO to go, make sure to check out some of my “8 Day Vacay” posts, a series where you don’t need to have PTO to travel!).
“How Many Hours of PTO Do I Earn Per Pay Period?”
I can’t stress this enough, if you are a nurse who values vacation time, it’s essential know how many hours of PTO you earn per pay period. Before asking, I would sit down and imagine how much vacation you’d *like* to realistically be able to take each year. I would say that the average nurse earns about one day per month giving you 12-days off per year (or four weeks). Don’t forget that if you’re working a traditional bedside job – 12 hours a day, you’ll also have the ability to take 8-days off in a row with no need to use PTO if you schedule yourself Sun-Mon-Tues of week one and Thurs-Fri-Sat of week two.
“What Does the Hospital Offer if There’s a Death in the Family?”
There’s more to “work life balance” than just taking vacations. Caring about the whole person, not just the nurse, is essential for hospitals to be able to retain staff. Case in point, the hospital should be offering you some sort of relief if you have a death in the family. Whether that is giving you extra PTO to use to go the funeral, being flexible by moving around your shifts for you, etc.
“How Many Weekend Shifts Am I Required to Work?”
The older I get, the less I tend to care about working the weekends. However, you may be someone who doesn’t like to work weekends so this would be a necessary question to ask! You should also note that sometimes weekend requirements vary based on which shift you’re working (days or nights), so make sure to clarify.
“Can You Tell Me What the Break Policy is at the Hospital, and Do Nurses Take Their Breaks?”
To me, this is a two part question because you can work at a hospital that allows ample breaks… but if the staff aren’t taking their breaks then it really deters you from being able to take adequate breaks. As far as wondering if the nurses take their breaks, you can ask “What is the culture like around break time?” “Do nurses leave their phones at the bedside or take it with them?” “Who watches their patients while they are on break – is there a designated break nurse?”
Some states (generally the states on the west coast) have laws around break times – you HAVE to take your break or the hospital will get in trouble. However, most state don’t have laws around break times.
“What are My Holiday Requirements? How is it Decided Who Works Which Holiday?”
Another good question to ask when thinking about life outside of work is what holidays you’re expected to work. Do you work one summer and one winter holiday? Do they bunch Christmas Eve and Christmas Day together or might you get stuck working one or the other? Plus you’ll want to know how each holiday is decided. Usually this is based on seniority but it’s always a good idea to ask just in case.
“Is There a Penalty if I Call Out On a Weekend/Holiday?”
I’ve worked at some hospitals that will penalize nurses for calling out sick during holidays or on weekends. Sometimes they require you to pick up an extra weekend shift or the next year they’ll expect you to work an extra holiday. I suppose that this is fine, but what if you’re really truly sick? Will this affect your attitude and ultimately your work life balance?
“Are There Incentives to Pick Up Extra?”
This is one question I never knew to ask and wish that I had! Believe it or not some hospitals will incentive nurses to pick up extra shifts! But this really varies and I’ve been at both sides of the spectrum. I personally would not be willing to pick up an extra shift unless an incentive was offered. But you decide what you’re okay with and if this isn’t a big deal to you then no big!
“Are You Required to Work Call Shifts?”
Working a call shift will mean that you’re working more than three days a week. I suggest asking how often call shifts are required, what the likelihood of being called in is, and how much money you make for being at home on call. You can also ask what the pay is for a call shift (is it time and a half? Double time? Nothing?) and if you’re allowed to give away your call shift. If you plan at staying at the particular hospital you’re interviewing at you can always ask if call shifts are required the more senior you become.
“Do You Offer Retention Bonuses?”
I overheard a nurse say this and couldn’t agree more – a body does not mean that it’s a quality body. Meaning that one new nurse does not equal one experienced nurse. If you want to work at a hospital that values loyalty, I suggest asking about retention bonuses. If they aren’t offered, maybe it’s something that management will start thinking about especially if there is high staff turnover.
“Do You Offer Mental Health Days or Offer Any Mental Health Services?”
Nursing is an incredibly difficult profession. We deal with death and dying on a daily basis and rarely get asked how we’re doing ourselves. Not to mention the uptick in crime against healthcare professionals and some shifts are just flat out bad. If your mental health is fragile (and whose isn’t these days?), I highly encourage you to inquire about mental health services or ask if anything is offered after a particularly difficult shift.
Bonus Question: “How Does the Hospital Support Me During COVID and What Happens if I Get COVID?”
I keep hoping that this question is going to be a non-issue, but unfortunately, COVID has yet to disappear. In times like these I strongly encourage you to ask about what the hospital policy is regarding COVID. How will the hospital support you during this time? How will the hospital support you if you do happen to get COVID? Will you have to use your own PTO? Will they give you extra sick pay? What type of PPE is provided at work and what if you’re exposed to someone that you’ve worked with? Before starting work is the time that you should be asking all of these important questions that could really affect you down the road.
This was a long list of questions and chances are hospitals aren’t going to be able to give you the answer that you want to hear for every question. I suggest figuring out what you can/can’t live without or ranking these questions from the most important to the least important and tailoring your questions from there.
What questions did I miss? Let me know in the comments below!
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