A rotating schedule is when you switch between day shift and night shift, working 7 am-7 pm for some of your shifts and 7 pm to 7 am for other shifts. As a nurse, this is commonly practiced throughout the country, with some hospitals having you “rotate” every six weeks, some have you “rotate” every three weeks, and some hospitals even have you “rotate” your shifts every few days. And while there’s evidence that says this isn’t safe or healthy, it’s still commonly practiced and not going away anytime soon.
But don’t let this scare you out of becoming a nurse! There are ways to ensure that you’re rotating between the day and night shifts to the best of your ability. Below you’ll find my best tricks that I use when transitioning between shifts so that you can feel your best and stay healthy and more importantly, stay safe while working.
What is a Rotating Schedule?
If you haven’t ever worked a rotating schedule, you might be wondering what it is exactly. A rotating schedule is when you rotate between day shift and night shift. Some hospitals have nurses rotating every three weeks, some hospitals have nurses rotating every three months, and some hospitals have nurses rotating every six months. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard of hospitals that require nurses to flip between day shift and night shift each week. It all just varies based on where you’re working.
Pro tip: If you’re interviewing for a staff job or a travel job, make sure to clarify what your shift will be and if you are rotating, how often you flip back and forth.
Wondering what other questions you should be asking in your interview? Read The Best Questions to Ask in a Nursing Interview
Tips for Working a Rotating Schedule
1. Get Enough Sleep
It doesn’t matter which shift you’re working, you must be getting enough sleep so that you stay healthy and can thrive at the hospital. You know your body best, listen to it, and know your limits. If you function best on seven hours of sleep, make sure that you get seven hours of sleep, no exception. If it’s nine hours, sleep nine. While things come up, try to set hard rules around when you go to sleep and when you wake up.
Even on my days off, I like to set my alarm every morning to ensure that I don’t “oversleep”. I know that I operate best on 7-8 hours of sleep, so even on my off days, I’ll set my alarm 7-8 hours from when I originally get in bed. That means if I go to bed at 10 pm, I wake up at 5-6 am even if I’m not working.
If you’re on the “night” part of your rotating schedule, getting enough sleep can be more difficult as you may find it hard to sleep during the day. I highly suggest using a good sleep mask, a fan, and ear buds to drown out the noise.
For more tips on working the night shift, make sure to read 10 Tips for Working Night Shift
2. Create a Routine Based on Each Shift
Another great thing to do when working rotating shifts is to create a routine for both day shift and night shift and stick to it. By creating a routine around your sleep schedule, you’re preparing your body to fall asleep and even preparing your body to wake up. The important thing is to make sure you’re limiting your screentime before going to bed. Silence your phone and put it where you can’t reach it once you’re in bed. I also recommend doing something that you like to do in the morning so that you’re excited to get up and feel rewarded.
For instance, when I’m working the day shift my sleep schedule looks a little bit like this: At 9:30 pm I stop using my phone, I get in bed and allow myself one TV show before turning off the TV and going to sleep. I wake up at 5:30 am, giving me an hour before work to read a chapter in my book – something I like to do – and slowly enjoy my tea. I have gotten adequate sleep – seven hours – and I have a routine in place.
When I’m working the night shift my sleep schedule looks similar. I get off work and get home around 8 am. I don’t allow myself any screen time once I get home. I immediately jump in bed. I wake up at 3 pm, read a chapter in my book – again, something I like to do – and slowly enjoy my tea. This ensures that I’ve gotten adequate sleep – seven hours – and I have a routine in place.
3. When You’re Due to Rotate, Give Yourself Enough Days Off to Switch Shifts
If your stretch of night shifts is over and you’re going to go to days, give yourself ample time off to be able to flip schedules. It is incredibly hard on your body (and exhausting) to go from working the night shift to having one day off and flipping to the day shift. You will burn out and not feel well if that is how you treat your body every time you rotate.
I encourage you to take off as much time as you can between rotations. For instance, on your last week of nights, work Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. On your first week of days, work Thursday, Friday, Saturday. That way you’ll have eight days off of work to practice going to bed earlier and getting up earlier (or vice versa).
4. Move Your Body
Rotating isn’t easy, and you need to be at the top of your game, health-wise, to be able to successfully do so. This means that along with adequate sleep, you should also be moving your body regularly. When you get home try to do something as simple as stretching. On your days off, go on walks, take a fun workout class, or opt for the stairs instead of the elevator. Get your blood pumping and your heart rate elevated!
5. Prepare Your Food Ahead of Time
When working 12-hour shifts in the hospital, regardless of whether it’s day or night shift, always be prepared for work. This includes making sure to meal prep healthy and nutritious food ahead of time.
I try to meal prep each week. This means I regularly go to the grocery store, and am constantly cooking so that I have delicious food to bring with me to work. While the cafeteria is open on day shift, on nights it’s a toss-up meaning it’s even more important to pack your food for the night shift.
Remember, there will be pot lucks and patients/family members who bring you food. It’s okay to splurge now and again – always be kind to yourself.
6. Take Advantage of Your Breaks
This really shouldn’t need to be said, but make sure that you’re taking 100% of your breaks, even if you’re busy. Working 12-hours straight is cause for burnout and not safe. Commit to get your break in no matter what and if possible, leave everything at the bedside. Tell your co-workers about your patients, hand them your phone, and take your allotted break.
If your hospital doesn’t commonly practice breaks or nurses take their phones/voceras with them on breaks, I encourage you to speak up and institute a change.
Rotating schedules can be difficult, but with these tips, you’re already ahead of the game. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below!
For more tips on preparing for work, make sure to read How to Prepare for 12 Hour Shift Schedules As a Nurse