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19 Survival Tips for Night Shift Nurses


January 17, 2023

Working the night shift has its challenges. It’s tiring, hard on your health, and it can strain relationships, to name a few. Night shift nurses know these challenges all too well!

Whether working nights is your choice or not, check out these yawn o’clock survival tips that show what you can do at work and at home to make the experience safer for your patients and easier on yourself.

Night Shift Nursing Tips for Work: Alertness and Safety

Staying awake and clear-headed all night long is one of the biggest challenges for night shift nurses. Feeling fatigued not only makes the work feel more challenging, but fatigue also puts patients’ safety at risk.

1. Stay Active

Night shifts often have more downtime than day shifts, and it can be tempting to kick back when you’re tired. But here’s the paradox – staying mentally active requires that you also stay physically active. This is a great time to take care of necessary tasks like checking supplies, restocking, and paperwork.

2. Nap

Research shows that napping during the night shift can lead to better work performance and can be protective against hypertension. If you’re allowed to catch a few z’s on your break, give it a try. But also …

3. Walk

If your schedule doesn’t already have you jumping, go for a brisk walk around the hospital on your break if you can. There’s plenty of research about the health benefits of walking. One 2018 study showed that a 15-minute walk over 10 consecutive working days resulted in improved well-being at work. 

4. Drink Water

Dehydration is a common cause of fatigue. It also impacts your cognitive performance and your mood. So, when clear thinking is your goal, before reaching for that coffee, have a glass or two of H2O.

5. Drink Caffeine – Sparingly

A strong coffee at the start of your shift can give you an energy boost but don’t rely on regular caffeine to see you through the night. One study found that nurses and midwives who drank excessive caffeine had more sleep disturbances, psychological distress, abdominal pain, and weight gain compared to those who didn’t. Stick to a coffee (or two), and only early on in your shift.

6. Eat for Energy

Skip the sugary snacks. Instead, choose healthy snacks like a handful of nuts, a cereal bar with whole grains, some fruit, or a smoothie for a longer-lasting energy boost.

7. Don’t Drive Drowsy

Seventy percent of night-shift nurses reported driving home drowsy after work. According to research, shift workers with Shift Work Sleep Disorder are three times more likely to be involved in a crash (or near-crash) than people with more traditional work hours. So take public transportation instead, get a ride, take a taxi or Uber, or grab a quick 15-minute nap at the end of your shift before driving home.

Night Shift Nursing Tips for Off the Clock

Getting into a groove can be tough when you work the night shift, but finding a schedule that works for you and your family, and taking time to care for your health, will make working nights easier.

8. Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise not only helps you better take on the physical demands of the job, but it also improves cognitive function, concentration, and sleep quality.

9. Eat Well with Meal Prep

As a healthcare professional, you already understand the role diet plays in your overall health and ability to function during a long shift. So, as tempting as sweets, quick highly processed meals, or fast food may be when you’re tired, do your best to have healthy options on hand. Taking an hour or two during your downtime to prep meals for the week can make eating healthier much easier. 

RELATED: Easy Meal Prep Ideas: 11 Tips Plus Recipes


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10. Go to the Doctor

Evidence suggests that shift workers may be more likely to develop cancer and cardiac, metabolic, and mental health complications. Your job is to be concerned with other people’s health every day, but make sure you don’t neglect your own!

11. Remember Side Effects

Many prescription and OTC medications cause side effects like drowsiness. Keep that in mind when working nights and sleeping days and change the timing of when you take those meds accordingly.

12. Set a Sleep Schedule That Works for You

The optimal schedule (in terms of alertness and health) depends, in part, on whether shift work is temporary, cyclical, or permanent for you. Here’s a good summary of some of the studies related to sleep and shift work.

13. Take a Strategic Pre-Work Nap

Whichever sleep schedule you choose, research shows that getting sleep within a few hours of starting your shift is better for alertness and, consequently, patient safety.

14. Sleep (About) 8 Hours in 24

Track sleep on a shifting schedule is tough. One trick is to count your hours of sleep over 24 hours rather than by day or night. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep in every 24-hour period, regardless of when the sleep happens.

17. Get on Military Time (AKA 24-Hour Clock)

Change the clock settings on your phone and get used to thinking about your schedule in 24-hour terms. For example, instead of working from six to six, you work 18:00 to 06:00. The time shift helps to prevent those groggy wake-ups when you don’t know whether it’s day or night. It may also be less confusing for other people in your life, like roommates, friends, or family members.

18. Set Limits at Work

One study of RNs found that nurses who worked over 12 hours per shift or more than 40 hours total per week were more likely to make an error on the job, as much as three times the average. For the sake of your patients and yourself, try to set limits on your work schedule even if you’re being pressured to take on more. It’s important to protect your work-life balance!

19. Stop If It’s Not Working

Maybe you don’t have the luxury of choosing your shift. But if you do, and working nights is turning your life upside down, then stop. Studies show that about 20 percent of people simply never adjust to working nights. If that sounds like you, it’s time to work another shift.

Working the night shift has its downsides. But it has its upsides, too, like more bonding with coworkers, more daytime flexibility, more opportunities for heart-to-hearts with patients, and more pay. So hang in there – you’ve got this!