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Night Shift Nursing: A Complete Guide to Surviving Working from Dusk till Dawn

Night Shift Nursing: A Complete Guide to Surviving Working from Dusk till Dawn

The idea of working night shifts can appear very daunting, especially as an aspiring nurse or an RN in the emergent stages of their career. Being a nurse is already a challenging profession. The extra layer of changing your internal body clock and rearranging your life and activities according to an unusual schedule is bound to make it more trying. 

There’ll be many questions running through your mind. How do I stay awake? How do I adjust to this new schedule? How do I make sure I offer the best patient care even though I might be exhausted or sleepy? Do the benefits of working night shifts outweigh the risks? 

It’s normal to wonder what it takes to survive – and better yet, conquer – the night shift. Here’s where we come in. In this guide, you will find the ultimate night shift survival kit: tips and tricks on adjusting to night shift nursing and advice on how to make the best of it.  

What Are the Benefits of Night shifts?

Some nurses dread working night shifts; others prefer them because the benefits of working nights seem to outweigh the drawbacks. Let’s explore some of these advantages:

Night shifts are better paid. Although the salaries will differ from state to state, and even among medical institutions, as a general rule, Registered Nurses who work the night shift earn more than day shift nurses. 

Another advantage is that fewer visitors and fewer family members are crowding a patient’s room during the night. Not having to deal with as many parties makes your job a little easier. 

More autonomy is another thing that draws a lot of RNs to night shift nursing. People in management positions don’t work nights, so you have a lot more liberty in the workplace. There are fewer unnecessary meetings and fewer distractions. If being more independent in your professional life is vital for you, you’ll find that night shifts fit your personality best. 

The nursing team is another big pro for night shift nursing. An unbreakable bond is formed among nurses who work together. The night shift offers more time for creating stronger professional and personal relationships. 

Not only do you bond more with your fellow nurses, but you also have the opportunity to create more intimate professional relationships with your patients. Granted, most patients will sleep for the duration of your shift, which means you get more time and get to offer more individualized care to the ones who are awake. 

In addition to all of these, some benefits often get overlooked. There will be more parking spaces after business hours, saving you the frustration of finding a spot. The commute to work may be shorter since there is less traffic when you get to work or home. At odd hours there are no lines in convenience or grocery stores. 

night shift vs day shift nursing

What Are the Drawbacks for Night Shift Workers?

Night shift nursing comes with its share of benefits, but we will not sugarcoat it; you also need to consider quite a few drawbacks. 

While nursing is challenging whether you practice it during the day or night, working from dusk to sunset tends to be harder on your body. If you’re not very careful and aware, the quality of your sleep may decline. Inadequate rest brings its threats:

  • Slower thinking (which, in certain healthcare situations, may make the difference between life and death).
  • Reduced attention span.
  • Increased irritability and anxiety.
  • Weakened memory.
  • Subpar decision-making.

These qualities are critical in preventing nurses from committing nursing errors on the job. 

Unfortunately, night shift nurses are also more prone to elevated health risks. They are at a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Working the night shift disturbs the metabolic rhythms which control the activity of your liver, pancreas, kidneys, and digestive tract. These disruptions may be linked with some gastrointestinal disorders or debilitating metabolic disorders. So, making the switch to night nursing is harder on your body. Still, you can alleviate these symptoms by closely monitoring your health and keeping a healthy diet and sleep regimen. 

Another drawback linked to night shift nursing is that not everyone understands what you’re going through and doing. Some won’t respect the time you need to rest or might make it harder for you to stick to your unusual schedule. 

At the same time, you may feel like you’re missing out on certain things because of your hectic schedule. Working nights and sleeping for a good part of the day leaves many people feeling like they aren’t present as much as people working more traditional 9-5 jobs. 

How Can a Night Shift Nurse Avoid The Risks?

While these cons are stressful, for the most part, they are manageable. First and foremost, to avoid night shift-related health concerns, you need to pay close attention to preserving your circadian rhythms

The circadian clock is the body’s self-programming to follow a 24-hour cycle. It controls (at least to a certain extent) body temperature, hormones, heart rate, and other body processes and functions. Thus, the body is pretty much wired for when it needs to be awake vs. asleep. Surviving the night shift requires going against your circadian clock, which can lead one to feel fatigued or drowsy. Despite the unusual schedule, preserving your circadian rhythm requires you to maintain a quality sleep pattern. That means you need to get enough quality sleep during the day. How to do that will be discussed in the next section. 

Adjusting your sleep schedule is step one in avoiding the risks associated with the night shift. Furthermore, you need to adjust your eating patterns, mental state, and habits. Then you will be able to transition smoothly into night shift nursing. 

nursing night shift routine

How to Adjust to Working the Night Shift: Night Shift Nursing Essentials

The night shift duration will generally depend on the medical institutions where you work. 12-hour shifts can be from 8 pm to 8 am, or 8-hour shifts can be from 11 pm to 7 pm. The duties of night shift nurses are the same as those of daytime nurses. The only thing that differs is the additional pressure on your mind and body to face a new set of challenges that go against what they’re used to. 

But if you manage to align your body and your mind, you’ll discover that you may enjoy working nights. There’s typically less of a rush. There’s more time to establish quality relationships with your patients and coworkers, and you get paid more. The following tips will help you survive and conquer the night shift. From how to stay awake to how to make the best of it, these are the night shift essentials:

Figure out the sleep schedule that works best for you

One of the first things you need to figure out when starting to work the night shift is the sleep schedule that will have you most rested and prepared for a night’s work after. Some nurses prefer to stay up for a few hours after arriving home from work in the morning. This way, they will wake up closer to their next shift (like one would do with a traditional 9-5).

Other professionals discovered a split-nap schedule to be the more efficient option. This type of sleeping schedule involves napping for a few hours immediately after getting home in the morning, getting up and going about your day, and then sleeping for longer in the hours leading up to when you start the next shift. Finding the proper sleep schedule may involve some trial and error. The thing that matters most is to get enough sleep every 24 hours. The National Sleep Foundation recommends an average of seven to nine hours of sleep for adults. 

Understand the Circadian Clock to Better Accommodate It

One of the most significant adjustments you’ll have to make is to change your circadian rhythm and sleep during the day. The circadian rhythm, our body’s default option, is guided for the most part by natural light and darkness. During the day, when there’s sunlight out, your brain releases hormones that make you alert and energized. On the other hand, when the light dims as the night comes, the brain releases melatonin. This hormone activates feelings of sleepiness and relaxation. Understanding how the body reacts to light and darkness will help you conquer them. 

Create a Sleep Environment that Encourages Quality Sleep

When reprogramming your circadian clock, you also need to adjust your environment. Figure out what exactly you need to be able to sleep during the day. It may be blackout curtains, eye masks, earplugs, or a sleep machine. You may want to set a ritual for yourself. Perhaps you want to take a hot shower before sleep, use face masks to unwind, drink some type of relaxing herbal tea, or avoid using screens for an hour before sleep. Find what helps you sleep uninterrupted and well during the day, and stick to you. Sleep is an essential part of succeeding during your night shifts. 

how to survive night shift nursing

Be Consistent When Scheduling Night Shifts 

Most people will eventually adapt to the night shift schedule, but the entire process may take some time. Training your body to develop consistent sleep patterns that revolve around your home and work routines will help. Many seasoned nurses find that scheduling night shifts “back to back” helps them lower the amount of sleep lost. If you aim to routinize night shifts, it will be much easier to train your body and mind if you have them scheduled consistently. 

Don’t Overlook the Power of Naps

The power of naps doesn’t limit itself to the split-nap schedule discussed above. Sometimes, napping for a short while during your shift might increase your energy level and attention. You can opt for a quick nap on your break if you find that a more energizing option than exercising for a few minutes. Some nurses advocate for the concept of the coffee nap, where you drink a cup of coffee and immediately after you take a short nap of 10-20 minutes, waking up just as the caffeine kicks in. Generally, 10-20 minute naps are perfect as they don’t give you enough time to enter a deep sleep phase. Hence, when you wake up, you’re energized and not groggy. 

One critical remark here is to check your institution’s policy on napping during work hours. Some hospitals encourage napping in the workplace and even arrange special spaces where nurses can wind down for a few minutes.

Have More Energy with a Balanced Diet 

We often take caffeine as the ultimate energy booster, but the truth is, the quick solution isn’t always the best one. If you want to avoid longer-term effects on your body, you should always consume caffeine in moderation.

Instead, to combat fatigue during your long night shifts, you should pay close attention to your diet. Certain foods and snacks will give your body the fuels it needs naturally. For example, fruits (bananas, apples) have simple sugars that will beneficially increase your glucose levels, giving you more energy. Fiber-rich grains are a fantastic way to turn carbs into energy. Opt for foods that contain healthy fats and vitamins, like avocado or salmon. Snacks should also be healthy: nuts, dried fruits, edamame, dark chocolate. As a rule of thumb, to keep your energy levels up and not crash halfway through your shift, consider whole foods, avoid refined sugars, and opt for healthy sources of energy. 

Many nurses find that instead of eating a big meal before their shift and another big meal during their break, more frequent and smaller portioned snacks help them get through the night better. 

Coffee Is Your Friend Until It Isn’t

When used moderately and wisely, coffee can help you stay alert. That’s why caffeinated beverages are so popular among shift workers. However, too much coffee can also lead to decreased concentration and performance. More importantly, drinking large amounts of caffeine can lead to some health problems: raised blood pressure, acid reflux, heartburn, and even dependency. 

So, our main tip is to use caffeine in moderation. A cup of coffee at the beginning of your shift may be an ideal pick-me-up. But having coffee three to four hours before your shift ends is not recommended, as you may have trouble falling asleep when you get home. 

how to adjust to night shift nursing

Stay Active, Both Mind and Body

The workload tends to be lighter during night shifts, so staying active is paramount. Otherwise, the shift will seem longer, and the fatigue will hit even harder. There are several ways to keep yourself engaged, both physically and mentally. 

First of all, if you are done with your regular tasks and still have hours to go, you can help with lower priority tasks that are essential but often get overlooked. You can also try to help the day shift nurses by completing some tasks that can be done ahead of time, like setting up equipment, preparing rooms, etc. The day shift usually is much busier, and your help will be greatly appreciated by day RNs. 

Secondly, you can opt for some non-work-related activities to keep your mind and body awake and active. Exercising is a great way to reduce anxiety, release endorphins, and fuel more efficient work time later on. Sometimes, just climbing some stairs to fill your water bottle on another floor can be enough exercise to give you an energy boost.

It’s important to find constructive ways to keep busy and active during your night shift. The slower pace can be either a blessing or a curse – depending on how you use up your time. 

Keep an Eye on Your Own Health

Nurses are some of the most selfless individuals. Often they’ll put their patients’ needs and health concerns far above their own. However, it is of utmost importance for nurses to look after themselves and their health and wellbeing. Especially in the night shift environment, RNs have to pay extra attention to how they feel to avoid burnout or other health concerns. Having an irregular schedule may lead to several problems: insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, menstrual irregularities, weight gain, and others. That’s why it’s imperative for nurses to consistently monitor their health to ensure their work schedule doesn’t lead them into any health danger zones.

Bond with Coworkers

While all nurses need to establish good relationships with their coworkers, nightshift RNs find it more important to connect and work well with their fellows. Firstly, because night nurses spend less time with the patients and their families, they must communicate well and thoroughly with day-shift nurses. Secondly, because there are fewer managers, directors, and physicians on duty during the night shift, RNs have to rely more on themselves and their fellow nurses. So, there’s a greater deal of autonomy for night shift RNs and a more pressing need to have an efficient professional net to rely on while on duty. 

Additionally, because the night shift tends to be more low-key, nurses have more time to spend and interact with their team. When the nursing team gets along and works together efficiently, the benefits are manifold: the shift runs smoothly, increased job satisfaction for all nursing personnel, less chance of burnout, and even better patient outcomes. 

Get your Loved Ones on the Same Page

Night shift workers need help, understanding, and support from their friends and family in order to adjust to the new irregular work-sleeping schedule. Your loved ones need to understand that you need uninterrupted sleep during the day, so they shouldn’t call or drop by during the hours when you’re supposed to be sleeping. During the day, it’s harder to go back to sleep if you’ve been woken up unexpectedly. So, they should respect your schedule, even though it might take them some time to get used to it. Their support and understanding will relieve you of the emotional guilt some people feel when they’re unavailable for their loved ones.

When You’re Not Working, Take Advantage of Daytime Activities

One of the benefits of working night shifts is that it opens up the rest of your day for many activities which aren’t normally undertaken by people with a regular 9-5 job. Suppose you’re a resident Registered Nurse in a new city. In that case, you can explore the city in broad daylight: restaurants, tours, museums, and so much more. Working nights can have its perks, even if you are a parent. You can participate in your children’s school activities (meetings, excursions, concerts) or spend quality time together after class or early evenings. 

nursing night shift

Is the Night Shift a Job for You?

Night shift nursing is demanding, but it is also extremely rewarding. All the challenges you face working nights will only make you a better, more resilient nurse. At the same time, you need to realize that this type of nursing position is not for everyone. Some nurses will adjust to the unusual schedule and responsibilities more quickly. In contrast, others will recognize that they are better nurses working during the day. You need to figure out what’s best for you and your patients and work towards becoming a great nurse, regardless of whether you work during the day or night shifts. 

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