Survival Tips for Night Shift Nurses
By Lee Nelson
Throughout the country every night, nurses put on their uniforms or scrubs and head to work while almost everyone else is sleeping. It’s one of those professions that doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. when everyone else goes home; caring for patients is a 24/7 occupation, especially for those patients hospitalized, in long-term care facilities, and in nursing homes.
But night shift work can cause problems with nurses' health, and not just their sleep patterns. According to the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders, shift workers (like nurses) are at increased risk for a variety of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and gastrointestinal diseases.
There is research that suggests that people, like nurses working the night shift, have higher levels of adverse health outcomes (cancer, cardiac issues) as well as higher occupational injuries (musculoskeletal and needlesticks). Further, research also suggests that nurses who work long and unusual hours may also be unsafe for patients related to poor patient outcomes.
Working in the health field, nurses understand they are at risk for many problems if they work late at night or into the early morning. But for those who have been doing the night shift for a while, they have some great advice to bestow upon others on how to keep happy and healthy despite the challenges against them.
“It’s about having the right attitude,” said Felicia Rasmussen of Lincoln, Neb. She recently spent two years on the night shift as an RN at the Tabitha Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. “If you are passionate about what you do, the hours are irrelevant. It is about being the best nurse you can and giving the best care to your patients.”
But it is also about being the best you can be to yourself and your family, she says.
Here are some survival tips for being a nurse on the night shift.
Food for Thought
It would be so easy to just pick something up to eat at the hospital each night. But Michelle Diederich, a registered nurse at the Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, brings her own lunch to work most nights.
“By doing this, I am able to make healthier choices. I also try to limit myself from going to the cafeteria at work to no more than twice a month. By doing this, I eat less fried greasy food in the middle of the night,” she says.
Rasmussen worked the 10 p.m.- 6:30 a.m. shift. Every night, she would eat dinner with her family, and then eat a light breakfast such as toast when she got home in the morning before heading to bed.
“I tried not to snack a lot through my shift because sometimes you can be more sedentary during the night shift,” she explains.
Investing in blackout drapes for her bedroom was the best thing Rasmussen ever did while working the night shift.
“It really aided me in my ability to sleep during the day hours. Plus, I would go to bed right away when I got home so I would be up by the afternoon for when my kids got home from school,” she says.
If she had to make appointments for her kids or herself, she would make them as early in the morning after she got off of her shift. This way, for the rest of her day, she had time to catch up on her sleep.
Diederich wears earplugs to help her block out daytime noises such as the dogs barking and lawn mowing.
“When I have to switch my sleep pattern to sleep at night after working all week, I make sure that I get up early in the afternoon so that I can go to bed at a reasonable bedtime. I normally take melatonin to help me sleep at night,” she says.
By going to bed the same time every morning and getting up at the same time every evening, she avoids being drowsy during her shift. Sometimes, life gets in the way and that normal sleep pattern gets interrupted.
“Broken sleep is hard to make up. It almost tires you more to try to make up for the sleep you lost,” Rasmussen says.
Diederich and her husband work different hours most days.
“Oftentimes, we only have a couple of hours a day together. I had to learn the mindset that quality of time is more important than quantity of time together,” she states.
She also allows for “me” time.
“I make sure that I take the time to do things just for myself, whether it is going to the gym, reading a book or watching my favorite show on television.”
Rasmussen and her husband committed one night a week for a date night while she worked nights.
“You really have to work at your relationships. You need to keep connected and plan things on your days off with them,” she says.
If there is a family birthday coming up or some other celebration, her family has just adjusted their schedules.
“My family just made sure that they do the celebration after I wake up from sleeping that day and before I went to work,” Rasmussen says. “And of course, there are times I have had to work Christmas or some other holiday. We just figured out what time everyone was available and schedule it then. It does take a supportive family to do the night shift.”
Needs of Night-time Patients
Sometimes patients who aren’t normally confused during the day can become confused at night, Diederich says.
“Their families have all gone home for the night. The lights go out for the night, and they are in a strange environment. They may need a little more reassurance from the nursing staff,” she reveals.
Rasmussen ran into the same situation with her elderly patients at Tabitha.
“There are always lots of tasks to do at night. But you always get a little more time with the patients and often relationships are created. We had the opportunity to sit down and talk and reminisce with them,” she says. “If you had a hospice patient, you could sit and hold their hand. I loved working in long-term care and geriatrics. It was an opportunity for me to give back and be present with them.”
Keep Close to Co-Workers
Rasmussen misses the camaraderie she found with her night shift co-workers.
“When we had time to have talks with each other about personal things and family, then that’s when we got very close. We also would find humor where we could. Night shift workers are really unique people,” she says.
She will never forget one of the nurses’ aides who was like the mother hen of the group. She would bring in snacks all the time, organize potlucks and do other nice things for everyone to keep the group cohesive.
“We would laugh at each other and joke around. We would do lunges down the hallway to keep in shape, and I was known for dancing down the hallways just to have fun with the other staff members,” she says.
Diederich says she really enjoys her co-workers, too, and that makes going to work much easier.
“Most importantly though, I honestly enjoy my job,” she says.
Trying to get that perfect work/life balance while being a night shifter can be a tough haul. But Rasmussen says it’s all about planning ahead.
“Just get in a cycle of sleeping the same hours each day. You need to change your body into thinking that this is the same as other people do but at different hours,” she says.
Sticking to your schedule even on the days you don’t work can help your body and mind feel normal.
The night shift can cause havoc with your social life, sleeping patterns and relationships if you don’t prioritize your needs including sleep, good food, exercise, family time and an open mind.
Rasmussen and Diederich say that working on the overnight shift can also be a great time to build strong connections with co-workers and patients and learn even more about yourself as a nurse and your goals in the future.
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Did you know there are also hidden perks to working the night shift?
Lee Nelson of the Chicago area writes for national and regional magazines, websites, and business journals. Her work has recently appeared in Realtor.org, Nurse.org, Yahoo! Homes, ChicagoStyle Weddings, and a bi-weekly blog in Unigo.com.