Night shift nursing is a challenge. Staying up all night, working hard, and fighting against your natural circadian rhythm all at the same time is one word: rough. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you know the rest of the world is sleeping but you have to be up saving lives. It doesn’t matter how much you love what you do; sleeping during the daylight hours and staying up all night can be physically and mentally draining.
To be a successful and healthy night shift nurse, you’ll need to follow some crucial practices. I was a night shift labor and delivery nurse for 2 years, so I learned so many things along the way. I’m excited to share them with you to help you make the most of your night shift nursing days.
How to Prepare for Night Shift Nursing
I clearly remember my first night shift. I was apprehensive at the mere thought of falling asleep on the job! However, it went so much better than I expected. I was so excited, my preceptor was teaching me amazing stuff, and the 12-hour night shift went by faster than I imagined.
I did feel the negative effects of working night shifts in the beginning, but I made some life changes and stuck to routines that helped me stay as healthy as possible. Let’s get right into them!
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. Fatigue not only makes the work feel more challenging, but it also puts patient safety at risk.
1. Stay Active
Depending on the situation, some night shifts 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.
Research shows that napping during the night shift can lead to better work performance and reenergize you just the right amount. If you’re allowed to catch a few z’s on your break, give it a try.
Make sure you have an alarm set, because it can be very easy to sleep longer than you should. Being disciplined about taking a nap during your break can improve your work efficiency.
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. As a nurse, your memory and sharp thinking skills are crucial to job performance and patient safety. But they decline when you’re dehydrated – not good! Staying at the top of your game means you have to drink water continuously throughout your shift.
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5. Drink Caffeine Sparingly
A strong cup of 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 in your shift.
6. Eat for Energy
Skip the sugary snacks. Instead, choose healthy snacks like a handful of nuts, a granola bar with whole grains, some fruit, or a smoothie for a longer-lasting energy boost.
Fueling your body is a great way to maintain steady energy levels throughout your shift.
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7. Build Rapport with Your Team
A night shift crew that feels like a family will help carry you through long shifts. Remember, you’re not alone in this – the entire team is up all night. You all have the same goal to provide excellent care for your patients. So build a rapport with your teammates – celebrate small wins and help each other out as much as possible. When you’re having a rough time and need a boost, it’s good to know your team members will have your back, just as you’ve had theirs!
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 take on the physical demands of your job, but it also improves cognitive function, concentration, and sleep quality.
I have seen a stark difference in my sleep quality when I don’t work out. I have a harder time shutting down, getting a night of deep sleep, and feeling refreshed when I wake up.
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 can 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.
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10. 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.
If you’re like me, a nurse who worked 3-4 shifts every single week, you have to build a routine that you can stick to. On days when you’re working, I suggest getting at least 5 hours of sleep before going to work. This will provide you with the energy required for the first half of your shift. Then during your break, you can get a power nap in.
11. Don’t Power Through Your Days Off
As much as you want to maximize your downtime during daylight hours, I strongly advise against trying to stay up for an excessive amount of hours after your shift. Even when you have a day off, it’s important to give your body the rest it needs. Just because you can stay awake for many hours in a row doesn’t mean you should!
12. 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. Breaking your sleep times into chunks may work better for you, or you may find you’re better off with one long sleep. Whatever works best for you is what you should do consistently.
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13. 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.
14. 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 learn how to say no confidently!
15. 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 it may be time to 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!
Pooja Patel is a registered nurse of eight years with a master’s degree in nursing leadership. Her primary specialty is in women’s health. She has worked as a labor and delivery nurse, fertility nurse, and now a fertility nurse manager. She has also worked in corporate insurance and ambulatory care. Pooja started her wellness and lifestyle blog, Nurse Bestie, to help overwhelmed nurses conquer their stress and learn how to live a happy and healthy life. She’s passionate about being healthy and sharing all of its life-changing benefits for busy nurses.