Tips for Surviving Night Shifts
Night Shift: Hazardous to Your Health
As a registered nurse of over 12 years, I am very experienced with night shifts. Our normal full time rotation is working two days, two nights, then five days off. The longer stretch of time off sounds great, except that the first day is spent sleeping, then feeling like you've been run over by a truck!
After having my first child, I cut down to part time work and then found the lighter load of working mostly only one night per "set" was certainly easier to recover from. I also discovered as a new mom that a baseline level of tiredness had become normal for me, so night shifts were more doable. Now that my family has grown to two children, I find that working nights makes it easier to accommodate our Family Schedule - I sleep while the kids are at school and this means decreased childcare costs, and allows my kids to participate in after-school activities that otherwise might not have been possible with two parents at work.
There is a price however.... I believe that the constant re-setting of the natural circadian rhythm does lead to chronic sleep disorders. I know many nurses who had to give up night shifts in order to preserve their sanity after suffering from acute insomnia. I myself sometimes find it difficult to achieve a good recovery sleep. Either I am so tired I crash into bed, then sleep so hard that I turn into an owl and am up all night on my days off too, or I can't achieve any quality sleep and suffer through that "turn-around" day with a Night Shift Hangover.
Tips for a Good Night Shift
In the hospital where I work, the only food options available after 7pm are vending machines. I use this to my advantage: if I only bring healthy snacks, then I only eat healthy snacks! Occasionally we all share in a potluck, most often this leads to more eating from the "unhealthy" category - and I find that while eating high fat or sugary food provides instant gratification, it makes me feel worse as the night goes on.
Typically I bring a salad with a protein in it (such as tuna) that I eat before midnight. It is very, very hard to find this appealing after midnight! Then, later in the shift I'll have some fruit and yogurt. At times when i have not been able to eat dinner before heading in, and have to eat dinner at work, I suffer from low-grade nausea for the remainder of the shift. Our bodies are simply not programmed to eat large meals at the time of day when a person would normally be sleeping. If I don't eat at all, I run out of steam and have difficulty concentrating - remember, your brain needs food to function!
Fluids are another important component of surviving night shifts. Recently I have switched to drinking caffeine-free herbal teas as I find them more appealing than water in the wee hours of the morning. Juices and soda tend to produce the fluctuations in blood sugar levels that can play havoc on mood. Although I always stop for a coffee on my way into work, rarely do I drink it once I am there or I get the caffeine jitters!
Finally, REST! Multiple studies have shown, at least in nurses, that taking regular rest or sleep breaks during the night shift leads to decreased medication errors, and is better for the health of nurses. Of course there will always be those crazy nights - especially during a full moon, it's true! - where breaks are next to impossible to get. However, putting your feet up and closing your eyes (even if you don't actually fall asleep), will make the night survivable. I know that getting some rest also makes me a safer driver heading home in the morning too.
Preparation before night shift is also important: drink plenty of water, try to have a nap in the daytime before your shift starts, and prepare some healthy snacks. There are some perks to night shifts too, and it helps to focus on the positive aspects! Employers often offer premiums or shift differentials for working nights. Laughter also comes more easily after midnight - there have been many times I have told my husband a funny night shift story... and I only get a puzzled look in return! Apparently the motto for night shift humour is, "You had to be there!". Sharing the experience of night shifts has certainly fostered some great friendships among my co-workers. So good luck, have a good night!