What is Shift Work?
Shift work is when a rotation of teams cycle throughout the day to deliver 24/7 staffing in a facility. Patients require around-the-clock care, so shifts are broken up into 8- or 12-hour shifts to ensure coverage at all hours.
This post will focus on what to expect with night shift nursing, the benefits and drawbacks, how to make the most of your time off, and some survival tips for when it becomes tough to manage.
What to Expect on the Nursing Night Shift
There are certainly pros and cons to night shift nursing. Some nurses shudder at the mere suggestion of working a typical 9–5, others could never imagine reaching for their scrubs instead of pajamas as the sun sets.
Better pay and flexibility: pros of working the night shift
Let’s start by learning about the benefits of night shift nursing to help you decide what works best for your lifestyle.
One significant benefit of working the night shift is the predictability of scheduling and the set hours. For example, you might get stuck working late on the day shift due to last-minute family meetings, unexpected visitors, and physician rounds.
Except for the mandatory daytime staff meetings you are obligated to attend, you can feel confident that your shift is over once you clock out and head out the door.
If you live in a busy metropolitan area, the benefit of a shorter commute may appeal to you. Working the night shift means avoiding rush hour traffic and arriving to work on time – maybe even with an iced coffee in hand.
More time off and better pay
Nurses that work 12-hour shifts will typically have 3-day work weeks that allow them to be paid for 40 hours while only working 36. The result is more time off.
Most hospitals and facilities reward their night shift nurses with a shift differential that increases their take-home pay. This financial incentive might be attractive to new graduates who have student loan debt, a new car payment, or kids at home – who am I kidding? Of course, a bigger paycheck is desirable to everyone, but you’ll have to decide whether the extra money is worth it.
Less hectic work environment
Hospitals and facilities are less busy during off-peak hours with reduced staff and strict visitation policies. With administrators home sleeping and supervisors few and far between, as well as fewer family members crowding the nurse’s station, you’ll experience reduced distractions, more autonomy, and increased independence.
Transitions and shift work disorder: cons of night shift nursing
Now that we’ve covered some benefits of night shift nursing let’s look at the potential downsides.
Disrupted sleep schedule
There’s no sugar-coating it — night shift nursing will upend your sleep schedule and disrupt your natural circadian rhythm. While the rest of the world is drawing the blinds, kissing their kids good night, and settling into bed, you’ll be on your feet, providing patient care, and pouring your second — or third — cup of coffee.
Increased risk for adverse health conditions: shift work disorder
It’s essential to understand the health risks associated with sleep deprivation.
Remember learning about the sympathetic nervous system? Here’s a quick review: when we experience stress, the natural fight-or-flight response becomes triggered, and cortisol and adrenaline flood our bloodstream.
A chronic state of stress, possible with any permanent night shift assignment and almost certainly with nursing, can result in the body remaining in fight-or-flight for too long, because the sympathetic nervous system might not know how to shut off. The result is an avoidable condition called shift work sleep disorder or SWSD.
Two significant symptoms characterize SWSD: insomnia and excessive sleepiness. Other effects include reduced driving safety, irritability, relationship and family issues, and problems at work.
Imagine being so tired that you can’t fall asleep because your off switch is broken.
Other adverse health conditions that night shift nursing can contribute to an increased risk of include obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, anxiety, and depression.
Less support in an emergency
Although working with reduced staff and less supervision on the night shift can be a boon to seasoned nurses who don’t require micro-management, this might not be the best fit for new graduates and less experienced nurses. If there were a medical or behavioral health emergency, you would likely have limited support to provide adequate assistance and leadership.
Night shift nursing requires prioritizing sleep whenever you can get it, which means missing events scheduled during the day after you’ve been up all night. As a result, it can seem like work is your priority, even though your heart is elsewhere.
Survival Tips: How to Prepare for the Night Shift
If, after weighing the pros and cons, you decide that you’d like to be a nurse on the night shift, you’ll want to take steps to make the schedule as easy on you as possible.
There are various approaches to prime your internal clock for a long night spent awake at work. Your lifestyle, family, and responsibilities unrelated to work will determine which technique is best for you.
Either way, surviving night shift nursing requires careful planning and preparation. Some ways you can expect the unexpected mid-yawn is to nourish your body with healthy food, practice mindfulness through yoga or meditation, and honor your body’s needs by prioritizing sleep, indulging in self-care, and finding ways to decompress naturally.
Cluster your shifts together
If your schedule is three 12-hour shifts per week, you will want to cluster these together to condense the time you’re not getting quality sleep into as short a time as possible. You will then have 4 days in a row to recharge, spend time with friends and family, partake in hobbies, or even indulge in a spa day.
Healthy lifestyle choices
Making good lifestyle decisions becomes necessary when you’re a night shift nurse.
You will notice one significant change immediately: there aren’t many food options when pulling all-nighters. The hospital cafeteria is closed and so are most restaurants. So chances are you will start packing food from home, which allows you to make nutritious choices to fuel your body and replenish the macronutrients needed for stamina and endurance.
Talk to your doctor about a magnesium supplement or multivitamin to augment healthy food options. Night shift nursing requires lots of TLC to ensure your immune system is at optimal levels and that you are receiving adequate vitamins and minerals.
If you’re a smoker or use tobacco products, the time to quit was yesterday. No judgment on my end, but smoking will only exacerbate the increased risk of night shift nurses developing heart disease, hypertension, and a slew of adverse health outcomes.
With time, you’ll create a new sleep routine that works for you and your family. Talk with your doctor about using a supplement like melatonin to help reset your circadian rhythm, and chat with your night shift colleagues about their favorite blackout curtains and white noise machines.
Try wearing blue-light-blocking glasses for at least 2 hours before the end of your shift and keeping them on while you drive home. Minimizing your exposure to blue light will help avoid tricking your body into thinking it’s time to be up when you’re in dire need of catching z’s.
Talk to your friends and family and let them know how important it is for you to sleep after working the night shift.
Explain that sleep is necessary for good health and to help you recover, especially if you’re working back-to-back shifts. Rest comes before errands, kids, friends, and your partner. It’s a tough conversation, but it comes with the territory.
No matter how bleary-eyed and exhausted you are after returning home from working the night shift, take a warm shower before you hit the hay. Aside from the obvious reasons, it will help you relax, soothe sore muscles and body aches, and prime yourself for quality sleep during daytime hours. Then, breathe in a steam-infused lavender or eucalyptus garland to benefit from the calming effects of essential oils.
Another way to treat yourself on a day off is to splurge on a spa day. After spending many sleepless nights tending to the care of others, allow yourself to be pampered and book a massage or pedicure.
Whichever way you choose to decompress, focus on therapeutic activities that promote mindfulness, rest, and relaxation.
Thriving While Nursing on the Night Shift
Night shift nursing is not for the faint of heart. It requires planning your meals, sleeping during odd hours, sacrificing precious time with family and friends, and making meaningful investments in your mental and physical health to stay fit.
There are benefits to the night shift, which include financial incentives, more autonomy, easier commute time, and more time off. However, the cons of night shift nursing include sleep deprivation, detrimental health effects, and work-life imbalance.
If you decide that night shift nursing is right for you, work with your employer to cluster your shifts together, regularly practice self-care, and honor the need to prioritize opportunities for sleep.