As I write this, sitting on my back porch in the late morning sun, smelling the grass my husband mowed and glimpsing birds flitting past in my peripheral vision, I feel removed from overnight shifts. The sun, so long the enemy of my sleep, has become my friend over this past year, my first year to work day shift as a nurse.
I now sport the perpetual tan of those who live and play in balmy climates, and my hair is many shades lighter. I find myself, however, occasionally missing night shift. Day shift is incredibly busy on any floor of the hospital, exponentially more so than night shift.
If you like nights, tolerate them, or simply must work them because of childcare or financial issues, then maybe my “sage advice” can help you not only survive as a night shift nurse, but thrive.
- Get enough sleep…Duh. This is the single most important rule of being a night shift nurse. Many doctors and experts recommend you keep the same schedule when you are not at work, sleep during the day and be awake at night. Yeah right, because the rest of the world will bow to your needs and time schedule. I found during the years I worked nights, a modification of this advice worked best for me. I would get up at 3-4 pm on days after I had worked, after going to bed at 8 am. I did not do any extraneous activities between shifts. When I was not working, I would go to bed between 2 or 4 pm, and sleep until noon-1 pm. I would not schedule anything in the morning hours. NO EXCEPTIONS. If you have children who need to be dropping off at school, look into carpooling, bus rides, etc. You need your sleep!
- Prepare your room (and life!) for optimal sleep. Black out shades are sold at Wal-Mart or similar retailers, but I found that they did not completely block out the light. I used reflective insulating bubble wrap taped over my windows for years with a black-out curtain over this. My room was a cave, and remains a cave. Also, wearing dark sunglasses on the way home after your shift helps, as well as keeping your bathroom dark. Turn your phone off, use a white noise machine, and make it clear to your friends and family you are NOT to be disturbed between certain hours, and if there is really an emergency they can bang on your windows. (Don’t actually tell them that last part—they can figure that out on their own).
- Do not eat a big meal during the shift, or after the shift. Instead, eat small snacks high in protein and healthy carbs every 3 or so hours. Only drink one-two cups of coffee, and do not drink coffee after a certain time in the day. I even began switching my coffee with green tea. Drink a lot of water, and do not gorge after your shift. I gained 20 pounds learning this lesson the hard way, which thankfully I have been able to lose….mostly.
- Exercise before your shift. I live close to the hospital I work at, so I started biking to work. The ride home would have me too wound up to sleep well until 9 or 10 am, so I started going to the gym before work and doing a bit of cardio and weightlifting. I got tired of the gym, so I found a yoga class and I did that on the days I worked. Even a brisk 20 minute walk works wonders. The point is that exercise wakes you up, and conversely helps you sleep better when its time for sleep.
- Be keen about your mental health. Your mental health is going to suffer working night shift, but realizing that you are going to feel grumpy, anxious and depressed simply because you are working nights can help you confront and address this issue. Do not lose touch with your support system and remember to rely on your coworkers who also experience some of the same feelings and problems.
Good luck working the night shift! And enjoy that shift differential—I miss it and you deserve it!
About the Author
Rebecca Kinnebrew, RN is currently employed at a large southeastern hospital, working in a busy cardiac unit. Her previous experiences include geriatric and maternal nursing. Almost all of her family works in healthcare, either as doctors or nurses, so at a young age she has been exposed to the real issues facing healthcare workers and patients. When she is not saving lives or holding the hand of those easing out of this life, she writes about her experiences and observations, as well as other topics. When she isn’t juggling her work hats, she plays tennis obsessively, works in her yard, and cares for her stepson, husband, and her little furball.