The Realities of a Nursing Career: What to Expect and Embrace

Debra Riley


The United States currently has over 3 million nursing jobs available, and the field is on track to grow by 7 percent by 2029. Working as a nurse can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be highly stressful.

Discover the realities of a nursing career – and how you can cope with the less-than-ideal ones – below.

realities of nursing career

Nursing Specialties and Job Types

There are many options for those wanting to work in the nursing field. The following are some of the most common positions you might pursue:

  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
  • Registered Nurse (RN)
  • Clinical Nurse Supervisor
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)
  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)
  • Nurse Educator
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist

Positions like an APRN, NP, or Nurse Educator require additional education (a master’s degree or Doctor of Nursing Practice). Because of the extra training required, they’re some of the most highly paid nursing jobs.

Positions like a CNA or LPN, which require only a certificate or associate’s degree, pay quite a bit less (but there are still opportunities to work your way up and earn more).

Daily Responsibilities of a Nurse

Whether they work as CNAs in a nursing home or a nurse practitioner in a private practice, nurses work hard every day. The following are some general responsibilities they’re expected to carry out:

  • Conduct physical exams
  • Collect detailed health care information from patients
  • Draw blood and perform other tests
  • Check vital signs
  • Analyze patients’ needs (physical and emotional)
  • Provide counseling and education
  • Coordinate with other healthcare providers to determine a treatment plan
  • Keep up with the latest advances in healthcare practices, medications, and treatment

Some nurses with more advanced degrees (such as NPs) can provide more in-depth medical advice and prescribe medications.

Challenges of Working as a Nurse

As a nurse, you will care for and support people during some of the most challenging periods of their lives.

This career makes you feel like you’re making a genuine difference. However, it also comes with some unique challenges that other professionals might not understand.

Here are some of the most frequently cited challenges you might experience as a nurse:

Long Hours
Most nurses work three 12-hour shifts per week. These extended hours, especially when working an overnight shift, can be physically and mentally draining.

nurses after long shift

Frequent Schedule Changes
As a nurse, the specific days of the week you work can also change frequently. One week, you might work Monday through Wednesday. The following week, your shifts will be more spread out.

Labor Shortages
Frequent schedule changes and long hours can be incredibly challenging because of the ongoing labor shortage in the nursing field. One study showed that the total supply of Registered Nurses, specifically, decreased by over 100,000 from 2020-2021.

A labor shortage means many of the nurses that remain are overworked and extra-stressed.

Physical and Emotional Taxation
A career as a nurse can be demanding physically and emotionally.

On the physical side, you spend much of your shift on your feet, moving from room to room to care for your patients. You also have to perform tasks like lifting and supporting patients.

Emotionally, nurses have to see people through difficult experiences — sometimes even deaths. Over time, these situations can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being.

Exposure to Germs
Nurses are regularly exposed to a variety of germs and infections, as well as harsh chemicals used for cleaning and sanitizing. You must be extra careful to avoid picking up illnesses and bringing them home to your family.

Poor Treatment from Patients
While most patients are grateful for nurses and their hard work, some take the stress of being sick or injured out on the person caring for them. Poor treatment from patients can put a damper on your experience and make a tough job more stressful.

How to Manage the Stress of a Nursing Career

Over one-third of nurses report feeling highly stressed even several years after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The good news is that for every challenge you’ll face as a nurse, there are steps you can take to manage your stress effectively and maintain your passion for your career.

The following are some highly recommended stress-reducing strategies for nurses:

Eat Healthfully

When dealing with a stressful job, you might be tempted to turn to high-sugar, high-calorie foods for a quick energy shot and some much-needed dopamine.

For long-lasting energy and better overall wellness, though, it’s better to focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods (lean protein, fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, etc.).

healthy food and exercise

Prioritize Sleep

Many nurses work overnight shifts, which can create challenges when it comes to catching up on sleep. If you struggle to sleep during the day, invest in blackout curtains and high-quality earplugs to ensure you get some uninterrupted rest.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise — even low-impact forms like walking — can help you minimize stress, sleep better at night (or whenever you sleep), and feel more alert during the day (or whenever you’re up and working).

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness activities like yoga and meditation can help you cope with stress and anxiety in healthy ways. They allow you to take a break from your worries about work as you shift your focus to what’s happening in your body.

Seek Mental Health Support

Many mental health resources exist specifically for nurses and other healthcare professionals. Talk to the HR department at your hospital or clinic and ask what resources are available to you. There’s no shame in seeking mental health support. Be proactive about taking care of yourself so you can continue taking care of others.

Ask for Help in Other Areas

Don’t be ashamed to ask for help in other areas of your life as well. For example, if you need your partner to do extra work at home (cooking meals, cleaning, etc.) so you can catch up on rest, ask.

Your mental health matters, and you can be a better partner, parent, or friend when you prioritize it.

Final Thoughts

A career as a nurse is challenging but rewarding. The more you understand about the realities of a health care career, the better prepared you’ll be (and the better equipped you’ll be to manage the stress in healthy ways).

Keep the information discussed above in mind so you can make an informed choice about your future career.