More than 15 million Americans work night shifts or have jobs that require rotating to nights. There are many positives to working the night shift, which is why so many jobseekers, even outside of nursing, opt for this owlish schedule – no rush-hour traffic, a less hectic routine and a higher hourly pay rate.
But we all know too well the health benefits of getting a full night’s sleep, which is next-to impossible when your shifts involve working during the hours you’d normally be sleeping.
So how can nurses and other healthcare professionals maintain balance, health and overall wellbeing while working the proverbial “night shift”?
Routine. Routine. Routine. By planning for adequate rest after every night shift, you can avoid some serious complications of chronic sleep deprivation, such as high blood pressure, cardiac disease and depression. There is no magic pattern. Find the pattern that works for you. The key is sticking with it.
But there are some basic steps you can take to ensure you set yourself up for success, shared by nurses who’ve been working night-time and overnight rotations for most of their careers.
Get 7-8 hours, every day
While you occasionally may need to interrupt your sleep for an important activity, your best strategy is to maintain a consistent sleep pattern. “Working at night interrupts your natural sleep pattern,” says Fran Laukaitis, RN, MHA, and Chief Nursing Officer at Methodist Charlton Medical Center in Dallas. “You have to schedule your sleep.”
It’s important for nurses to make sleep a priority. According to the National Sleep Foundation, keeping the same bedtime and wake time schedule even on your days off makes a huge difference, for the better. Using eye masks and ear plugs can ensure more restful sleep during the day, as can avoiding alcohol and caffeine within a couple of hours of your designated bedtime.
Be careful with caffeine, throughout your shift
Caffeine can give you a boost at the start of your shift and can be tempting to continue throughout the night. But cut it off at least four hours before the end of your shift so you’ll be sleepy when you get home.
The NSF suggests drinking coffee, tea or cola takes about 20 to 35 minutes to improve an individual’s level of alertness, but overdoing it can lead to nervousness, dehydration (which also can adversely affect sleep) and irritable bowel syndrome.
Eat ‘breakfast’ before work
You need fuel to get through the day … or in this case, the night. Avoid sugar and refined foods before and during your shift. Bring protein, nuts, fruits and vegetables for snacks. Small portions every few hours will keep your blood sugar stable. Adopting a grazing approach toward eating and drinking fruit juice and water to prevent dehydration are your best bets for success.
Lighting is important, to keep the rhythm in balance
To “fool” the brain, and thus your circadian rhythm, you must surround yourself with light during waking hours. Most hospitals dim the lights at night so patients and residents can sleep. Try to keep lights turned up at the nursing station and in the break room. On your way home, however, you should wear sunglasses to reduce direct daylight, which can stimulate the brain.
Exercise or Get Active to Stay Alert
Nurses who work the night shift tend to experience the most fatigue and drowsiness around 4 a.m. They should avoid completing the most tedious or monotonous tasks during that time. Exercise is a healthy, non-chemical way to fight back when a feeling of fatigue starts to take over, however. Staying active during breaks is an effective way to reboot energy levels, and may include taking a walk to the cafeteria, climbing a set of stairs, dancing to a song on the radio, or taking a quick jog, if you have somewhere safe to do so.
Keep busy all night
Traditionally, the night shift has some responsibilities that support the busier day shift. Inventory, stocking supplies, cleaning work areas, chart reviews and gathering data for quality indicators are some of the duties. But it’s a good idea to bring something to do for slow nights, too. A book or magazine and even knitting — anything that can quickly be set aside to help a patient — can keep the brain occupied. Although as we all know, in the hospital setting there rarely are slow nights!
Get to know your co-workers
Time goes more quickly when you’re engaged with others. Help each other out; with fewer resources than during the day, you’ll get creative when a new glitch pops up. Teamwork is key to surviving the night shift. You’ll also have a chance to build some lifelong friendships.