Helping Older Nurses Stay in the Workforce

Rebecca Hendren, February 23, 2010

The nation's graying nurse workforce is a worrisome trend. The last big survey from the HRSA Bureau of Health Professions found in 2004 that the average RN was 46.8 years old, and that nurses younger than 30 made up only 8% of the workforce.

That means a large proportion of the workforce is nearing retirement, although the struggling economy has given healthcare a break. Many RNs who want to retire have postponed their plans due to financial concerns, but retirement rates are likely to creep up as the economy improves.

Nursing reflects the nation's workforce, where many workers do not want to retire at age 65, either because they need the income or they enjoy what they do. Nursing is a passion as well as a profession, and some nurses thoroughly enjoy their work and would like to do it for as long as possible.

A Virginia Department of Health Professions study found 30% of the state's RNs ages 66-70 plan to work at least another five years, a bonus for organizations that retain the extensive knowledge, critical thinking capabilities, and excellent patient care skills of experienced nurses. Nursing leadership can help older nurses stay in the workforce as long as they want by making simple adjustments to the work environment.

Flexible scheduling is one of the easiest places to start and results in benefits for nurses of every age. For example, offering shorter shifts for older nurses who find 12-hour shifts too demanding is also attractive to younger nurses who are juggling childcare responsibilities or pursuing further education.

The following staffing and scheduling strategies increase flexibility:

  • Peak-time shifts—Eight-hour, four hour, or any combination shifts make a huge difference on units during busy hours
  • Multi-task shifts—Combine roles within a regular shift, such as four-hours patient care, four hours precepting and mentoring new nurses, and four hours involved in committee work
  • Job sharing—Two or more nurses split a full-time schedule
  • Group sharing—A group of nurses bands together and signs up for eight-hour shifts, but they match each other to ensure the entire 24 hours are covered and their schedule does not affect nurses on traditional schedules
  • Staggered shifts—Nurses who want to be full time but not work more than two 12-hours shifts in a row could take two 12-hour shifts and two eight hour shifts, which gives them three days off (and five evenings) to be with family and friends each week

As well as the physical demands of nursing, older nurses are dealing with personal issues that affect their plans to remain in the workforce, such as caring for aging parents.

Rebecca Hendren Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at
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