What Is a Charge Nurse?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A charge nurse is a registered nurse who also serves as a leader during a nursing shift. From nursing education to leadership skills, learn what it takes to become a charge nurse, what the job is like, and if it might be the right career choice for you.

[Featured Image] A woman wearing purple scrubs and a blue mask checking the charts as she works on a patient.

A charge nurse is a registered nurse with extra training and leadership skills in charge of a nursing unit during a shift or specific period. Charge nurses need both strong clinical and human skills, and they must be good managers. They must also be willing to step up and take responsibility, be able to make critical decisions, and be good planners and coordinators.

Learn more about what a charge nurse does, the benefits of choosing this career, and the typical educational and training path you could take should you decide to embark on this exciting career. 

Charge nurses are interested in continuing patient care but want to extend their roles and become leaders. As a charge nurse, you may oversee a nursing unit in a specific department and work directly with patients as well. You would typically create schedules, assign nurses to patients during each shift, handle admissions and discharges, manage supplies and medications needed for that unit, and deal with any problems that arise during a nursing shift. 

To become a charge nurse, you'll begin as a registered nurse. Many nurses choose to advance their careers once they've gained a certain amount of education and experience. While there are many paths you can take in the nursing field, those who choose to become charge nurses are usually nurses who wish to become leaders in their field. You might also take this path if you enjoy making a difference in the lives of others or you're looking for a career that offers variety. 

No two days will be alike when you're a charge nurse. Most importantly, you might choose this career path if you believe you're willing to take responsibility for and be accountable for what goes on within a nursing unit on a daily basis to ensure that patients get the best possible care.

Charge nurse vs. nurse manager

While a charge nurse and nurse manager's job descriptions may seem similar, they are two different careers. Both positions typically start as registered nurses and require years of experience and good human and leadership skills. These career paths can be rewarding and help you make a positive difference in the lives of patients, their loved ones, and the nurses and other staff you oversee each day. 

However, nurse managers don't usually work directly with patients. As a nurse manager, you would focus more on administrative and managerial duties, as well as communication with doctors, nurses, administrators, therapists, social workers, pharmacists, and various other medical professionals. 

As a charge nurse, you would manage the nurses in their units, but as a nurse manager, you'd also manage support staff and other health care professionals who work within your units. While a charge nurse works with new nurses on tasks such as how to administer an IV, a nurse manager may be ensuring the unit is within budget. As such, nurse managers typically have more advanced education. 

In some health care facilities, job duties for a charge nurse and nurse manager may overlap. Some facilities may have a charge nurse and a nurse manager on duty, or they may just have one or the other. Always consider each job description carefully when seeking a new career, and make sure you're up to the task for any duties you may be involved in. 

Benefits of working as a charge nurse 

Working as a charge nurse offers many benefits, including variety, the ability to make a difference, and job satisfaction. If you decide to take this path, you'll not only advance your career, but you'll likely find that you're doing something that can be fulfilling and life-changing. 

Variety

When you work as a nurse, each day will typically be unique. Even if you work in a particular department where you focus on the same issues, such as labor and delivery, each patient will bring their own set of challenges and needs. 

When you work as a charge nurse, this is especially true. Not only are you serving unique patients each day, but you're also working with a team of nurses with individual abilities and challenges. Basically, as a charge nurse, you'll rarely get bored. The job should stimulate you physically and mentally every time you go to work. 

Ability to make a difference

Simply becoming a registered nurse offers benefits beyond a paycheck. Every time you go to work, you have the opportunity to make a difference to a patient and their loved ones. 

As a charge nurse, you will do this too, but you'll also make a difference from a different perspective. Not only can you help a patient through hands-on care, but you'll help ensure your unit is running smoothly, which also helps lead to better care. 

If your unit is organized and well-staffed, you’ll benefit from a more favorable environment for both nurses and the patients. You can help make a hospital or clinic a place where the nurses are happy to be at work and the patients, in turn, are receiving compassionate and quality care. 

Job satisfaction

Charge nurses tend to have a high job satisfaction rate. Taking the step from registered nurse to charge nurse is a significant career move, and it's a good one for many people who feel they have the leadership skills to accept more responsibility.

If you enjoy solving problems and making big decisions, you may find that you enjoy the job of a charge nurse. It's also considered a positive move for a registered nurse who wants to learn more about how an organization works. It's your opportunity to gain new experiences. In addition to your clinical work, you'll learn more about scheduling, budgets, communication, and management. 

What is working as a charge nurse like?

There is no typical day for a charge nurse, especially if you work in a hospital setting. That being said, not all charge nurses work in hospitals, and not all of them have the same responsibilities.

Let's look at the most typical work settings you might encounter, the everyday duties many charge nurses share, the skills you'll need to become a charge nurse, and the job outlook and salary information. 

Typical work setting 

Charge nurses typically work in hospitals, usually in a particular unit like labor and delivery, surgery, intensive care, or the emergency department. However, you can work in other medical settings, like clinics, doctor's offices, nursing homes, dialysis centers, rehabilitation facilities, home health care agencies, and urgent care. Jobs can be full-time, part-time, or as needed. 

Common responsibilities

The responsibilities of a charge nurse will vary from job to job. Since some facilities will have a charge nurse and a nurse manager, and some will just have a charge nurse, you may handle various clinical and administrative tasks. These could include: 

  • Supervising and supporting other nurses and unit staff 

  • Creating staffing schedules and assigning nurses to patients or tasks 

  • Training new hires or implementing new programs with existing staff 

  • Overseeing safety compliance and ensuring that organizational regulations are met 

  • Educating patients

  • Meeting with administrators to discuss staff members and patient care successes and failures 

  • Handling admissions and discharges 

  • Monitoring supplies and ordering new ones as needed 

  • Caring for patients yourself as required, such as when a nurse on your team is unable to complete a task

  • Monitoring medication 

  • Providing guidance and advice to your team of nurses 

  • Evaluating nurses' performance 

  • Monitoring patients' conditions and intervening when necessary

  • Intervening in volatile situations involving patients, their loved ones, or staff members 

  • Understanding each nurse's talents, abilities, and weaknesses and using them appropriately 

  • Updating, revising, and approving patient care plans 

  • Coordination with the nurse manager and other staff members 

  • Checking the environment of the unit or patients' rooms for safety hazards 

  • Ensuring medical equipment is functioning properly 

Key skills

Leadership skills are a must if you want to be a charge nurse. Your team of nurses, patients, and other staff members will look to you for guidance when something goes wrong or when they're unable to answer a question themselves. 

You'll also need strong clinical skills as you may need to step in when a nurse on your team doesn't know what to do to help a patient. There are many other critical human skills you can gain and improve on to ensure you can successfully fulfill the job requirements and enjoy being a charge nurse. These include: 

  • Using good judgment

  • Making quick decisions 

  • Being organized 

  • Being a good planner

  • Staying flexible so you can handle whatever comes your way

  • Communicating and coordinating with patients, patients' loved ones, nurses, physicians, and other support staff

  • Evaluating situations constantly and making adjustments as needed 

  • Thinking critically at all times 

  • Remaining calm under pressure 

It can also be advantageous for a charge nurse to be creative and curious, and a good sense of humor can help you enjoy your job without becoming too stressed out. 

Job outlook and average salary 

According to Glassdoor, a charge nurse in the United States makes $89,604 [1] base pay per year on average, and you might make a total pay of up to $113,095. That means you could earn up to $23,491 in bonuses, supplemental, or additional compensation. The salary range for charge nurses is typically $63,000 to $211,000, depending upon experience, location, and other factors.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that all health care jobs expect a growth rate of 16 percent between 2020 and 2030, a rate much faster than the average career path [2]. That includes a 9 percent growth rate for registered nurses [3]. If you are a registered nurse now or want to become one, working towards advancement, like becoming a charge nurse, may add even more job security. 

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Typical career path for charge nurses 

Being a charge nurse starts with becoming a registered nurse and includes gaining experience and leadership skills. While there's no specific training for a charge nurse, those who wish to embark on this career typically follow a similar path. 

Educational path 

Before you can become a charge nurse, you must first become a registered nurse. You must earn an associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing from an accredited institution, which can take two and four years. Once you do this, you'll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN). [4]

You may choose to go on and earn a bachelor's or master's degree in nursing if you haven't already, especially if you know you want to advance your career in the future. Many hospitals and clinics prefer to hire charge nurses that have at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Some states require a registered nurse to hold a bachelor's degree. 

Required licensure and certification

Once you've passed the NCLEX-RN, you'll need to become licensed in your state to become a practicing registered nurse. Each state has unique requirements for nursing licenses, so always check to make sure you're doing what's required as you embark on your nursing career. 

Charge nurses do not necessarily need any sort of licensure or certification beyond this to do their jobs. However, the organization where you work may have special requirements. For example, you will likely need to be certified in CPR or basic life support, and you may need specialty credentials, such as pediatric or cardiac life support. 

Professional experience

Once you've become a registered nurse, your professional experience is where you can really take steps to become a charge nurse. You'll need to spend about three to five years working as a registered nurse in a clinical setting. During that time, you may want to decide on a nursing specialty, like labor and delivery or intensive care, and work on gaining as many skills as you can in this area. This is also a great time to advance your education and hone your leadership skills. 

Cultivating leadership skills 

Concerning leadership skills, there are many things you can do to develop them while you're gaining nursing experience. First, become a lifelong learner. Whether you're seeking an advanced degree, taking courses, or adding certifications to your resume, adding to your knowledge shows that you're committed to your career. 

Next, focus on your strengths and weaknesses if there are areas where you could improve, work on them. Find ways to let the areas where you excel shine. Join community and professional organizations. Seek mentors, and once you have some experience, mentor those around you. Finally, keep a positive attitude and maintain your value system. 

Next steps 

One of the best ways to advance your nursing career is to continue learning and adding to your skill set. You can do that on Coursera by enrolling in online courses that help you learn about patient-centered care, pain management, mindfulness, leadership, and other topics important to being a charge nurse.

This includes courses like Integrative Nursing and Nursing Informatics Leadership Specialization from the University of Minnesota. 

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Advance your Nursing Informatics Leadership Skills. Master nursing informatics leadership skills to achieve optimal outcomes across healthcare settings.

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 Article sources 

1. Glassdoor. "RN Charge Nurse Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/rn-charge-nurse-salary-SRCH_KO0,15.htm." Accessed March 26, 2022. 

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Healthcare Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm." Accessed March 26, 2022.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-1." Accessed March 26, 2022.

4. NCSBN. “NCLEX & Other Exams, https://www.ncsbn.org/nclex.htm." Accessed April 27, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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