In the nursing world the “night shift” shift usually refers to the shift worked from 7 pm-7 am. For people outside of medicine, working the night shift is a foreign concept. People may ask you, “Do you really stay up all night?” or even worse, “Why did you sleep all day?” Some people may even try to offer you useless tips for working night shift! But the truth is that as a nurse, especially a new nurse, working the night shift is hard to avoid. In fact, almost every nurse working in a hospital will be required to work it one time in their career.
Myself, I am an avid day shift nurse. I live and breathe day shift. On my days off I’m up by 6 am and in bed by 9 pm. So when I am forced to transition to working the night shift, I panic. It wasn’t until my third travel nurse contract, where I was placed back on the night shift from the day shift, that I decided to take control of my schedule so that I could stay awake at night and better function on my days off. Here are 10 night shift tips and my health tips for night shift workers that I now practice to stay healthy and thrive in a night environment.
10 Tips for Working Night Shift
1. Prepare for Night Shift
This may be obvious, but when I began working night shift I was missing one crucial ingredient. Preparation! By mentally, physically, and emotionally preparing for night shift you will feel that much better when you actually are working the night shift. So what does this look like?
To mentally prepare for the night shift, give yourself a few weeks before going into nights where you begin practicing staying up later and later. Transitioning to the night shift will take your body weeks, not days. About two weeks before I start working the night shift I like to start going to bed later and sleeping in longer. So the first night (14-days before I transition to night shift), I try to stay up 30-minutes longer than usual and let myself sleep in at least 30-minutes longer. The second night (13-days before night shift), I try to stay up for an hour longer than usual and let myself sleep in an hour longer. In the days leading up to the night shift, I listen to my body but try to stay up as long as possible. It’s now that I stop setting my alarm and let my body sleep for as long as it needs to. This helps me adjust when I am finally on the unit working.
To physically prepare for working the night shift I make sure that my routine (besides my sleep routine) does not change. This means that I continue on with my regular workouts (with time adjustments), and still make sure that I am getting adequate sleep. I continue to fuel my body with healthy foods, but I don’t make any big changes to diet or exercise during this time. With my body learning how to stay up later and later I don’t stress it out by also changing other routines at this time.
To emotionally prepare for the night shift I allow myself to feel all the feelings. I don’t stuff them down and pretend that I’m excited to be working nights. I get them all out, journal, talk to other nurses who work nights, complain to my mom. Anything to get my feelings, grievances, and annoyances out so that I can go to work with a clear head and do what I’m there to do – help and take care of others.
2. Get Adequate Sleep
Getting adequate sleep is imperative to surviving night shift. Even on your days off, you should still be in a routine of getting 7+ hours of sleep every night. Did you know that you can’t “catch up on sleep”? You shouldn’t only sleep for 4-hours one night thinking that you can make it up the next. Make it a priority to get an adequate amount of sleep each and every night to best function when staying up all night.
When I work the night shift the way that I ensure I get adequate sleep when I come home at 7 am is by getting straight into bed. I don’t watch TV, pour a glass of wine, or make breakfast. I simply put an eye mask on, turn on my fan, and lay down – even if I’m not tired. I then set my alarm 8-hours later. I also make it a point that if I wake up before my alarm goes off, I continue to lay in bed with my eyes closed until it goes off – even if it won’t go off for two more hours. I find that by doing this I’m still resting my mind and training my body to stay asleep until my alarm wakes me.
For a lot of people, it is not easy to sleep during the day even if you’ve stayed up all night working. For me, the best way to sleep after night shift is by using these things:
A Fan – I turn on a fan to the highest level possible to drown out the noise.
An Eye Mask – Even if I have dark curtains, I still use an eye mask to filter out any light.
Blackout Curtains – These can be bought at Target and keep your room nice and dark.
Earbuds – I also place earbuds in my ears before sleeping. They usually fall out, but it helps drown out the noise and allows me to fall asleep.
Over the Counter Medicine – Sometimes when I’m having a lot of trouble sleeping I take a Benadryl and this usually does the trick. Some people swear by Melatonin, but personally, that has never worked for me.
3. Stick With Your Routine
As mentioned earlier, when I transition to night shift the only thing that changes is my sleep schedule. I keep everything else the same. Including, and most importantly, my workout routine and eating habits. Once you start working the night shift you’re sleeping in later, even on your days off, and it’s easy to start pushing off your workouts or any self-care routine that you have in place. You may wake up at noon and think “I’d rather go meet up with my friends”, but it’s important to stay healthy and stick to your routine so that you can continue to thrive at work.
Self-care looks different for everyone. Like I mentioned, for me, it’s working out and eating healthy. For you, it might be reading a book each morning, sitting down for Bible study, or just enjoying a cup of coffee. Stick to these routines no matter how late you sleep in and before you go out to meet your friends. The longer you push off your normal routines, the more likely it is to catch up with you in the end. Take care of yourself, so you can best take care of your patients. Plus, your friends can wait an extra hour!
4. Watch Your Caffeine Intake
Monitoring your caffeine intake is both vital before you work and while you’re at work. On days that I go into work, I don’t start drinking caffeine right when I wake up. This is because I aim to nap before going into work. I try to have my first taste of caffeine on my way into work.
It’s also important to monitor your caffeine intake at work. Don’t drink caffeine in the early morning hours or you’ll have trouble falling asleep when you get home. My general rule of thumb is to stop drinking caffeine around 2 am. This works best for my sleep schedule once I get home.
5. Learn the Art of Taking a Nap
One of the best tips for staying awake on night shift is to learn how to take a nap. In the beginning, it can be hard to train your body to sleep, especially if you aren’t used to napping; but it’s imperative you learn to love it.
When I am working my first shift of the week after having a long stretch off, it’s oftentimes impossible for me to sleep in past 8 am no matter how hard I try. On these days I have to nap or else I won’t be able to stay up for the entire night shift (that translates into being awake for nearly 24 hours). If I wake up early and have to work the night shift, this is what my routine looks like:
Wake-up, do all chores (groceries, cooking, etc) in the morning – Avoid caffeine
Get my workout in and eat a healthy lunch
Lay down for a nap, even if I’m not tired – This usually happens between 2-4 pm
Get out of bed at 5 pm (even if I didn’t sleep) – Eat dinner, have my first cup of caffeine, get ready for work
6. Prepare Food Ahead of Time and Eat Nutritiously
When working the night shift it is crucial to be prepared when it comes to food. In most hospitals, the cafeterias are closed at night leaving you with vending machine options or unhealthy fast food delivery. And when the cafeteria is open, the choices still aren’t very nutritious. To stay alert and awake it’s important to fuel your body with healthy, nutritious food. If you aren’t prepared you’ll be stuck with sugary options or fast food – both of these things will wear you down and make you drowsy.
To prepare food for the night shift I make sure that I meal prep each week. If I have a particularly busy week with no time to meal prep then I opt for healthier frozen meals. Keep in mind that you can’t be perfect all of the time and if you slip up or have a pot-luck at work, it’s okay to enjoy it. Always remember to be kind to yourself.
7. Bring Activities to Work
One of my favorite tips for working nights is to remember to bring activities to work! One pro to working the night shift is that it’s usually a more laid back, relaxed atmosphere. The managers aren’t working, the hospital CEO is at home. The atmosphere is typically more fun and there’s also more downtime as you let your patients sleep.
When I work the night shift I like to bring activities to work so that I don’t get bored. Plus, this helps me stay awake! I usually try to remember to bring a book, some sort of puzzle (I like Sudokus), and headphones for the break room so that I can watch a TV show on my phone during lunch.
8. Learn the Sleep Culture at Your Hospital
If you’re based in the Midwest, this probably sounds like a foreign concept to you… but some hospitals actually allow you to sleep! They even encourage you to! I worked at one particular hospital in California where the policy was that you were required to go for a nap. At the beginning of your shift you’d sign up for a 30-minute time slot, and once your time came a hospital employee would bring you a pillow, blanket, and lead you to where you would be resting. You were then responsible for setting your own alarm and making it back to the unit after your 30-minutes was up.
Some hospitals are laid back and if you want to take a nap during your lunch break, they encourage you to do so. Other hospitals have a strict, no sleeping policy. Find out what your unit allows and the culture on your unit so that you can plan your nights.
9. Say No to After Work Brunch
This might be a hard one – but say NO to after work brunch. The night shift can be a fun and rowdy crowd and some units the nurses get together afterward to brunch before heading home to sleep. While this is fun every once in a while, don’t make a habit of it. Eating a large meal and drinking before passing out in bed later in the morning will only leave you feeling bloated, dehydrated, and tired when you wake up. Say yes on special occasions, and learn to say no all other times.
10. Never Underestimate the Power of a Squat
There will still be those nights that you feel like you did everything right. You prepared. You napped. You ate nutritious food and got adequate sleep the night before. And even then, there will still be some nights where the minutes drag by and it’s painful to keep your eyes open. It’s on these nights that I never underestimate the power of a little exercise.
If you’re struggling to stay awake, get moving! Do a few squats, go walk the hallways, climb the stairs, do some jumping jacks. By getting our of your chair and getting your heart pumping a little bit you will naturally begin to wake up.
My 10 tips for working night shift have transformed the way I think of nights. I still don’t love them, but I find it easier to stay awake and even better easier to sleep during the day. As a travel nurse when I have less say about which shift I’ll be working, it’s important to me to go into the hospital with a good attitude even if I am not working the shift I want to be working. With that being said, I’m always in the market for a new tip or two! If you have any, please leave them in the comments below.
If you’re looking for more tips on preparing for your shift (day or night), make sure to read: How to Prepare for 12 Hour Shifts As a Nurse