Skip Navigation LinksHome > September 2012 - Volume 42 - Issue 9 > Guidelines for Successful Self-scheduling on Nursing Units
Journal of Nursing Administration:
doi: 10.1097/NNA.0b013e3182664dd8
Departments: Spotlight on Staffing

Guidelines for Successful Self-scheduling on Nursing Units

Russell, Elizabeth MSc; Hawkins, Jenna BA; Arnold, Kara A. PhD

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Author Information

Author Affiliations: PhD Candidate, Department of Psychology (Ms Russell), MA Candidate, Department of Sociology (Ms Hawkins), and Associate Professor, Faculty of Business Administration (Dr Arnold), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Correspondence: Dr Arnold, Faculty of Business Administration, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, NL, Canada A1B 3X5 (

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Self-scheduling programs are an increasingly popular strategy utilized by employers to address the individual and organizational challenges resulting from employee work-life imbalance among the nursing workforce. Certain key components will ensure buy-in and support from staff when self-scheduling programs are developed.

Nurses face particular challenges in maintaining healthy work-life balance, given the demands of 24/7 service expectations, high levels of physical and emotional labor,1 and nonstandard and lengthy shifts.2 Self-scheduling, a form of flexible scheduling, may be a viable option for improving work-life balance for nurses.3 An alternative to the master schedule, a self-scheduling program allows nurses to indicate their preferred shifts to work and/or not be available and to produce the shift schedule as a self-managed group. Nurses schedule their shifts under certain conditions and parameters such as requirements for working a certain number of weekend shifts and ensuring scheduling meets patient census predictions.4,5 In self-scheduling programs, a charge nurse or manager usually oversees the schedule development process and provides support to staff members in addressing requests and issues.5,6 Self-scheduling on nursing units is not a one-size-fits-all initiative and may cause problems if staff is not included in program development, implementation, and evaluation and if organizational culture toward self-scheduling is not positive. When these guidelines are strategically considered, self-scheduling should positively affect nurses’ work-life balance, improve retention, enhance productivity, and positively benefit the organization’s bottom line.7

Flexible scheduling practices have become a workplace norm for recruiting and retaining staff.2,7-10 The following recommendations provide guidelines for success and are intended to enhance the positive outcomes of self-scheduling on nursing units.

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Two Key Components of Self-scheduling

Staff Inclusion in Program Development

Research suggests that, in order to effectively introduce self-scheduling, nurse leaders must involve staff from the early stages of development, through the implementation phase and program evaluation.5 Including nursing input in workplace policy development affords nurses more control over their work and may result in other positive outcomes.11 Staff involvement can serve as an opportunity for education of nurses about the complexities of the scheduling process and staffing budget constraints. An advisory committee of nurses should be established to represent and advocate for specific flexibility needs and buy-in to the program.5,12

Before introducing self-scheduling, it is important that a thorough needs assessment,11 using quantitative and qualitative approaches, be conducted and baseline data established. Assessment should be done in partnership with the advisory committee to identify the scheduling needs of nurses on targeted units. Surveying the staff helps nurse leaders identify key issues of concern prior to program inception. Communication with staff about the project should include frank and open discussions about the potential drawbacks and difficulties of self-scheduling. These interactions support further staff education during the early stages of self-scheduling13 and should include outlining the roles and responsibilities of staff in implementing the new program. Employees who fully understand how and why the new scheduling program works are more likely to actively participate and optimize benefits.

Creating a feedback mechanism for review and evaluation of self-scheduling at regular intervals is necessary to develop and implement an effective program.14 Nurse leaders should collect data regarding both quantitative outcomes of the scheduling program as well as staff satisfaction information for comparisons to baseline.

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Organizational Support

To produce measurable benefits in employee satisfaction and other organizational variables, broad acceptance of and support for self-scheduling practices at all levels are necessary.15,16 Nurse leaders must adopt a supportive attitude toward self-scheduling, even if it is perceived that the program is slower or more tedious. Negativity toward schedule organization and attitudes about perceived inconveniences of the new system may facilitate an organizational culture which discourages positive program uptake.15

In addition to encouraging top-down support for self-scheduling, it is important that nurses engage in and positively support the program. One way to gain employee support for self-scheduling, in addition to including nurses at all implementation stages, is to ensure fair and equitable program access.12 This may be done by computer programs designed to allow limits to self-scheduling so that only schedules within given parameters are requested by employees.6 A rotating, 1st-come, 1st-serve or seniority model for self-scheduling may be an effective check against unfair and/or inequitable access.5 Providing built-in checks and balances to ensure maximum program equity and adherence to guidelines ensures the integrity of the system and should increase acceptance and support for the program.

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Nurse leaders who implement self-scheduling can improve work-life balance for nurses and realize organizational benefits. Evaluative criteria for a new program should consider employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity, in addition to measurements monitoring patient care quality as related to staffing. It is clear from the literature that self-scheduling is a beneficial and flexible alternative to master schedules for nurses. To enhance self-scheduling and avoid possible negative employee and organizational outcomes, it is recommended that staff be included in all stages of program development and that organizational support from management, nurse leaders, and nurses be ensured. Consideration of these recommendations will support the development of a self-scheduling program that can benefit both nurses and the patients they serve.

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