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 oftentimes a foreign concept. Constantly asking, “Do you really stay up all night?” or even worse, “Why did you sleep all day?” Unfortunately, as a nurse, especially a new nurse, working the night shift is impossible to avoid. If you work in a hospital setting, every nurse will likely be required to work the dreaded night shift at some point in their career.
As for me, 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 (cons of travel nursing), I completely panic. It wasn’t until my third travel nursing contract, two years after I had strictly worked the day shift, that I accepted a night shift position in Santa Barbara. It was at this moment that I decided to take control of my life, figure out what would (and would not) work for me 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 daily 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 the 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 the 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.
Another thing that I believe is important to getting enough sleep, is that after you work a night shift, come straight home and go straight to bed. Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t make breakfast. Don’t check your phone. Put an eye mask on, turn on a loud fan, and lay down even if you don’t feel tired. Set your alarm for 7+ hours after you lay down and get up once your alarm goes off. If you happen to wake up before your alarm – don’t check your phone. Continue to stay in bed, eye mask on, until your alarm goes off. I say this because once you open your eyes to check your phone, it can be much harder to fall asleep afterwards. Resist the temptation and stay where you are.
For a lot of people, it’s 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 give me some ambient noise and drown out the sounds from outside.
- An Eye Mask – Utilizing a good quality eye mask has been life changing. After trying many eye masks in the past, the masks from Manta Sleep take the cake. They filter out any light and even if I open my eyes, it’s still completely dark.
- Blackout Curtains – If you have space for blackout curtains, these can usually be quite beneficial. Target sells some for an affordable price.
- 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. Lately I’ve used my AirPods with the noise cancelling feature which has helped enormously.
- Over the Counter Medicine – Sometimes when I’m having a lot of trouble sleeping I take a Benadryl or Unisom, 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.
4. Watch Your Caffeine Intake
Drinking caffeine can sometimes feel like a lifesaver when you’re in the wee hours of the morning struggling to stay awake at work. And while caffeine is a blessing… it can also be a curse. Make sure you’re monitoring your caffeine intake and you aren’t consuming too much caffeine before your shift is over and you’re about to go to sleep.
5. Take a Nap if Necessary
One of the best tips for staying awake on night shift is to learning how to take a nap before starting your shift. And even if you aren’t actually napping, I still think it’s important to lay down and recharge before heading in to your shift. If you aren’t the best at napping I suggest avoiding caffeine for the day before your nap, and having a set time that you lay down every single time before you work. I don’t suggest skimping on sleep just so that you can take a nap. Adequate sleep is the most important part of being able to successfully thrive on the night shift.
Before I head to work, my day oftentimes looks like this…
- Wake-up (after sleeping for 7-8 hours), do all chores (groceries, cooking, etc) in the morning, making sure to avoid caffeine
- Get my workout in and eat a healthy lunch
- Lay down for a nap, even if I’m not tired – Around 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. Not to mention the intense cravings that can come when you’re up at 4 am and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. (Too much sugar or grease is a one-way ticket to drowsy town – I know from experience!).
To stay alert and awake it’s important to fuel your body with healthy and nutritious food, which is why I suggest prepping your meals before work. And while consistency is important, perfection is unattainable. You will have times that you slip or don’t have time to meal prep. That is completely okay and understandable. If there’s a shift you need to get takeout – do it! And never feel bad if you choose to bring a frozen meal to work instead of prepping fresh foods. Always 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 either aren’t working or let more things slide, the hospital CEO is at home, there are less family members around. The overall atmosphere is usually more fun and there’s more downtime as your patients are usually sleeping.
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 if no-one is around.
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 San Francisco 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 in 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 Walk
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 out 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. But per usual, 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
If you’re going to be rotating shifts, don’t miss: 6 Tips for Working a Rotating Schedule