What Is a Charge Nurse? A Look at These Hands-on Nursing Leaders
By Jordan Jantz on 10/17/2022
When exploring potential healthcare careers, you’re drawn toward the idea of becoming a nurse. Working directly with patients and saving lives sounds like it could be the perfect job for you. But you’re also interested in putting your leadership skills to work as well. Taking on the role of a charge nurse is an excellent way to get the best of both worlds.
Perhaps you’ve heard about this role or have seen a job posting mentioning it, but you’re not totally sure what life in this position would look like—and you have questions. What is a charge nurse? What is a charge nurse responsible for? What’s the difference between a charge nurse versus a nurse manager?
Today, we’re answering all your questions about working as a charge nurse. Keep reading to find out if a career as a charge nurse is for you.
What is a charge nurse?
“I used to tell new charge nurses that they were like the ‘quarterback’ of the unit,” says Martha Paulson, former charge nurse and current clinical manager at Advantis Medical Staffing. “They’d be calling plays, knowing who needs help and reassigning as needed.”
Charge nurses are like shift leaders for a hospital or department’s team of nurses. In addition to the usual nursing duties, charge nurses have another layer of responsibilities where they oversee all the other nurses in their unit.
With this leadership position comes an expectation of knowledge and expertise. Charge nurses are the people who other nurses turn to with questions or for assistance. A good charge nurse is an indispensable resource for their department or facility.
Because of this additional responsibility and authority, charge nurses will often need additional certifications or qualifications. For instance, they may need a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) rather than just an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN). While this isn’t necessarily a universal requirement—plenty of excellent ADN-RNs have served as charge nurses—these “extra” qualifications can help show aspiring charge nurses’ commitment to growing their nursing expertise and leadership abilities.
What does a charge nurse do?
A charge nurse’s duties can vary widely depending on where they work. In large hospitals, each unit will typically have its own charge nurse. Charge nurses at these facilities will have specific duties more focused on the cardiac unit, ICU, oncology or another specialty.
In turn, these nurses need to have deep, expert knowledge about that area of nursing, as they are the person other nurses consult with questions or for advanced expertise.
On the other hand, charge nurses at smaller facilities will often have broader duties, as they may be the only charge nurse for the whole location. They need to have a broader generalist knowledge base to answer questions for a wider range of patient issues.
In general, charge nurses may find themselves training new staff, answering staff questions, setting staff patient assignments, caring for patients, covering breaks and overseeing the nursing team.
Charge nurse versus nurse manager
While the description of this job sounds quite similar to that of nurse managers—after all, they both work in supervisory positions—there are some key differences between the roles.
The biggest difference between charge nurses and nurse managers is that charge nurses spend much more of their time directly working with patients, while nurse managers typically do not work with patients unless extremely short-staffed. In turn, nurse managers focus more on administrative tasks, like scheduling, budgeting or representing nursing units in meetings with upper management. Additionally, charge nurses are typically the leaders for an individual shift of a nursing unit instead of the entire unit at all hours.
As the job title suggests, nurse managers are in charge of managing the nurses from a personnel perspective. Charge nurses are concentrated on patient care and healthcare matters. While there is certainly overlap in these areas, charge nurses are typically a rung below administrative-focused nurse managers in an organization’s hierarchy—if an issue can’t be resolved by a charge nurse, it often escalates up to nurse management.
Challenges of working as a charge nurse
As with the unique traits of this job, charge nursing has its own set of unique challenges. “In my experience, one of the more challenging situations as a charge nurse was being short-staffed,” says Paulson. “Keeping up with the demand was not easy and required some creativity!”
With another layer of responsibility on top of ordinary nursing duties, there’s no doubt that being a charge nurse is a demanding job. Additionally, being the one who everyone turns to for advice and help can be a high-pressure situation—not to mention having to keep your nursing knowledge and skills in tip-top shape as the expert in the room.
“[Y]our hands are always full as a charge nurse with tasks like handling call-ins, difficult patients, patients declining or needing more care and supporting everyone as needed,” says Paulson.
There are also relationship dynamics to contend with as a team leader. Good charge nurses need to be wary of favoritism and the individual needs of nurses on their unit. For instance, are you providing opportunities for teammates who’ve expressed interest to take on high acuity patients? Or finding ways to balance assignments for a nurse who’s been put through the wringer with challenging patients the past few shifts? These are considerations that can be challenging to navigate in some circumstances.
What’s enjoyable about being a charge nurse?
Before you worry too much about the challenges of this job, rest assured that there are plenty of rewarding aspects of being a charge nurse.
In exchange for the pressures of the job, charge nurses are entrusted with additional authority and responsibility. “I loved being a charge nurse because I had an overview of the entire unit,” says Paulson. If you’ve got a knack for leadership, then this job could be for you.
“I was also able to work with everyone, mentor new nurses and collaborate with the other ICU members,” says Paulson. “Being a charge nurse was an incredibly rewarding and exciting experience.” With the additional duties, there’s ample variety, so you’ll never have a boring moment.
And charge nurses get the joy of helping out the rest of the nursing team and seeing them succeed. The position lets you take a mentorship and advisory role to lift up the nursing staff.
Furthermore, as a charge nurse, you still get all the rewarding aspects of helping patients and the hands-on work that is typical of nursing positions.
Traits of effective charge nurses
What does it take to be successful as a charge nurse through both the rewarding aspects and the challenges?
First and foremost, Paulson says, “A successful charge nurse is an expert in the specific area or department they operate.” Because the rest of a hospital or department’s nurses depend on the charge nurse’s knowledge, charge nurses need to have above and beyond the typical nurse’s knowledge.
Charge nurses also need to be able to stay calm and levelheaded. When there’s an emergency or unfamiliar situation, the nursing team looks to the charge nurse for experience and advice. Amidst all these stressful situations, charge nurses have to be strong leaders.
“With experience comes many solutions to unpredictable situations,” says Paulson. “Charge nurses are a resource to the facility team and are important for keeping things operational.”
Finally, charge nurses need to be multi-skilled and adaptable. As Paulson says, “A glimpse of what a successful charge nurse should be able to handle: the ability to assess patients, lead the team, be a good mentor, provide support and see the entire unit.”
Ready to lead as a charge nurse?
Now you can answer, “What is a charge nurse?” This nursing leadership role has a lot of overlap with typical nursing duties with the addition of leadership responsibilities and added expertise.
Is working as a charge nurse in your future? If you’re ready to pursue this career path, having a BSN degree can help position you for this nursing leadership role. To learn more about this important qualification, read our article “I’m an ADN Nurse … Is a BSN Worth It?”