What is a Charge Nurse?

Strong communication skills, the ability to juggle multiple tasks, and a knack for leadership define this career; perfect for RNs ready to take the next step.

medical professionals looking at chart in hospital hallway
medical professionals looking at chart in hospital hallway

Charge nurses are registered nurses (RNs) who act as nursing leaders during their shift. Charge nurses oversee their unit and make sure everything runs safely and effectively, even during an emergency.

To work as a charge nurse, you’ll need strong nursing skills, excellent interpersonal skills, and great organizational ability. The role of the charge nurse can vary slightly depending on your nursing unit and healthcare facility. For example, your role might be different if you oversee a small unit with only a few RNs on each shift compared to a large unit with many patients and nursing staff members to manage.

No matter what kind of unit you work in, being a charge nurse comes with significant responsibilities. You typically won’t be seeing patients, but you will be ensuring that the best patient care is delivered. By taking on tasks like creating patient assignments for each RN on a shift, you’ll be planning and coordinating care for every patient in your unit that day.

“Being a charge nurse is a lot of work, no matter what floor you work on,” says Alaina Ross, RN, BSN, a registered nurse with 10 years of experience as a post-anesthesia care unit nurse. She frequently works as a charge nurse in her unit. “Your role is more about managing nurses’ breaks, navigating different personalities, ensuring patient coverage, and dealing with administrative paperwork than it is about actual patient care.”

Charge nurses typically don’t provide direct patient care.

Ross says that managing a range of personalities can be challenging. You’ll need to be ready to de-escalate conflicts and address any issues without getting too overwhelmed or stressed out yourself.

“You need to be able to adeptly handle interpersonal conflict,” says Ross. “You’ll frequently need to overrule colleagues and push back on requests without upsetting them. You must manage which nurses on the floor have had their breaks and shift them around like chess pieces while maintaining patient coverage. It can be quite challenging at times, especially when you’re thinly staffed.”

So, if you’re comfortable handling personnel issues and looking for a leadership role you can tackle as an RN, working as a charge nurse might be a great fit for you.

What Does a Charge Nurse Do?

As a charge nurse, you’ll manage the nursing activity of your unit during your shift. You’ll be the one making nursing assignments. You’ll pass on patient status updates, handle emergencies that arise, and make sure care is delivered to every patient.

“The days I serve as a charge nurse are often hectic and packed with a wide variety of tasks,” says Ross, who works in her facility’s post-anesthesia care unit. While specific tasks vary depending on the type of facility you work in and the type of care you provide, some common responsibilities of a charge nurse include:

  • Coordinating break times for nurses
  • Handling conflicts and knowing when to escalate them to a manager
  • Assigning patients to bays as they are transferred from other units
  • Communicating with bed control teams about daily space needs
  • Ensuring patient assignments are appropriate for each RN

Aside from dealing with patient and staff needs, a charge nurse is also responsible for a number of administrative tasks. In many cases, these duties make up the bulk of a charge nurse’s shift. Some common tasks include:

  • Making sure the policies of your healthcare facility are being followed by nursing staff
  • Making sure the unit is stocked with medications and supplies
  • Coordinating patient movement to other departments for tests and procedures
  • Filling out any needed patient care paperwork
  • Reporting issues to the nurse manager or unit director
  • Updating patient charts and care plans
  • Checking for lab and other test results and making sure they are recorded in patient charts

While a charge nurse’s responsibilities differ from those bedside nurses, you’ll still need sharp clinical skills. You won’t often be providing direct patient care, but there will still be times you’ll need to step in. Some examples: If a patient is having a medical emergency that requires action by the whole team, or if a less experienced nurse asks you for help with a patient or procedure. Remember, as a charge nurse you’ll be a leader, which means other members of the nursing staff will come to you for help and advice.

What Degree Do I Need?

Charge nurse roles are RN roles. In many places, you can work as a charge nurse with any RN degree. That means you could have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Some hospitals and healthcare facilities might prefer RNs who’ve earned a BSN, but in many others, you can take on a charge nurse role as ADN-educated nurse.

In a lot of healthcare facilities, your experience and expertise might be more important than your degree level. Charge nurses are often nurses with at least a few years of experience. After all, you’ll need to understand exactly how a unit operates before you can take on management of it. Plus, a charge nurse often acts as a resource for the unit, so you’ll need sharp clinical skills and experience that you can pass on to others.

Charge nurses are registered nurses with a few years (or more) of experience.

This doesn’t mean you have to wait decades before you can take on a charge nurse role, but it does mean you’re unlikely to move into the role fresh out of nursing school. Generally, you’ll need to have worked as an RN for about three years before you can take on a charge nurse position. The exact amount of experience you’ll need will depend on the requirements of the healthcare facility.

Do I Need a Master’s Degree?

Like most jobs, earning a higher degree can help you advance in your field. In nursing, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree can help you move into several leadership roles. However, it’s generally not necessary for a charge nurse role. While you absolutely can take on a charge nurse role with an MSN, a graduate degree gives you the chance to go after other, more advanced leadership roles, such as a clinical nurse leader.

If you’re interested in taking on that type of leadership and thinking about going back to school to earn an MSN, working as a charge nurse might help. It’s a good way to determine if you’re suited for the challenges of nursing leadership roles. Plus, you’ll get management experience you can use on the job after you earn your master’s.

What About Certification?

There are no certifications specifically for charge nurses. However, it can be a good idea to be certified in your nursing specialty as a way to show that you’re an expert RN who can take on the responsibility of a charge nurse. So, if there is a certification available in your specialty, it’s a smart idea to earn it.

How Long Does It Take?

You’ll need to be an RN, then get some experience as one, to work as a charge nurse. Your timeline will depend on which degree route you choose:

ADN Degree: Two years

BSN Degree: Four years

No matter what degree you earn, you’ll also need to pass your NCLEX-RN exam and obtain a license from your state’s board of nursing before you can work as an RN. You’ll need to keep your RN license current to work as a charge nurse.

Where Do Charge Nurses Work?

Charge nurses are needed in healthcare facilities with large nursing staffs. You’ll find charge nurses in most hospitals. Generally, each unit in a hospital needs charge nurses on every shift, so in a large hospital, there may be dozens of charge nurses.

While you generally won’t find charge nurses in doctors’ offices or small clinics, they’re also employed by:

  • Mental health facilities
  • Specialty hospitals
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Skilled nursing facilities

While basic staff oversight and administrative duties are usually the same in any workplace, the type of nursing facility you’re in will dictate other duties you take on each day. For example, the type of staff you manage could look different. Beyond RNs, you could be overseeing licensed practical nurses (LPNs), certified nursing assistants (CNAs), and sometimes even non-nursing professionals like cardiac monitor technicians. You’ll need to ensure all staff members are working together and that patient care is coordinated.

What’s the Difference Between a Charge Nurse and Nurse Manager?

A charge nurse and nurse manager sound like very similar roles. However, there are some distinctions. 

Education is one.

  • A graduate degree isn’t required to work as a charge nurse.
  • Nurse managers are generally MSN-educated nurses.

There’s also a big difference in the level of responsibility.

  • Charge nurses are responsible for a unit during the shift they work, not for what happens when they leave. They also don’t make long-term decisions for the unit.
  • Conversely, a nurse manager is responsible for making sure their unit performs well 24/7, achieves its goals, and maintains standards.

Staffing is a great example of the difference in the roles.

  • Charge nurses make patient assignments for nurses on shift.
  • Nurse managers hire nurses.

Another example is unit supplies.

  • Charge nurses are often responsible for taking inventory of supplies and ordering needed items.
  • Nurse managers are responsible for knowing their unit’s budget in order to pay for those supplies.

Another nursing role that is often confused with charge nurses or nurse managers is clinical nurse leader. The clinical nurse leader doesn’t actually manage nursing staff. Instead, clinical nurse leaders are care coordinators. They work to make sure that every department and healthcare professional who sees a patient is communicating effectively to deliver the best possible care. Additionally, clinical nurse leaders must hold at least a master’s degree.

All three nursing leadership roles play a vital role in patient care in many healthcare settings. Often, nurses in each of the three roles work together. By bringing their differing perspectives and expertise together, nursing leaders of all kinds can help improve the facilities they work in and the lives of the patients they see.

How Much Can I Earn?

$77,460
Average Annual Salary for Registered Nurses

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses earn an average annual salary of $77,460. Factors like where you work, your experience, your education, and any certifications you have can all make a big difference in salary.

The BLS doesn’t track data specifically for charge nurses. However, in many facilities, RNs are paid an additional amount on top of their hourly wage during each charge nurse shift.

Is a Charge Nurse Role Right for Me?

You’ll need to be prepared to take on new responsibilities as a charge nurse. This role is great for RNs who want to pursue leadership and are exceptional at managing stress. You’ll also need to be very organized and have top-notch communication skills to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“Charge nurses need to clearly and efficiently coordinate with multiple parties: nurses, doctors, bed control staff, surgeons, et cetera,” says Ross. “You also need to be able to think on your feet. Situations frequently arise that are not always straightforward, so you need to be able to think outside the box. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, great charge nurses are always highly organized. Attention to detail is critical when you’re in charge of a unit.”

Career Outlook

7%

Growth predicted in RN roles by 2029

The BLS predicts a 7% growth in RN roles by 2029. That’s all nurses—not just charge nurses—but there is good reason to assume charge nurses are an important part of that growth. There is a growing emphasis across the country on the importance of nursing leadership roles.

Many healthcare facilities are looking at how nurses can help train and mentor less experienced nurses. Charge nurses are part of that movement, so there are likely to be many charge nurse positions in years to come.

Professional Resources

As a charge nurse, it’s important to stay up to date on the latest developments in nursing. Professional organizations are a great way to do that. You can use these resources to sharpen your skills, make connections, and read new research.

Ross points to the Hospital Association of Southern California (HASC) as a good resource for charge nurses, and the material it offers is not just specific to nurses practicing in California. Among other things, it offers a series of online courses that provides in-depth and helpful information about working as a charge nurse.

Other resources for charge nurse include:


Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

alaina ross

With professional insight from:

Alaina Ross, RN, BSN

Charge Nurse


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