The Nurses Night Shift Survival Guide

24 February 2020 By Michael Bowyer

​How to survive night shift nursing – tips for nurses

Any nurse will tell you – night shifts can be tough. From disturbing sleep patterns to missing time with family and friends, the side effects of working night shifts can take their toll both mentally and physically. Optimising sleep and taking care of your health and wellbeing are crucial to withstanding these effects.

Night shifts – what effect does it have on your health?

Working the night shift can lead to a few negative impacts on your health, including a higher risk of chronic illnesses. Long-term night workers generally have higher levels of triglyceride (basically, fat) and high levels can contribute to heart disease and stroke, as well as a higher risk of obesity.

Our bodies rely on sleep to regulate chemicals and hormones within the body and disruption to natural sleep, including reduced sleep and disturbed circadian rhythms, can have a negative effect. There are also psychological effects of working night shifts, as it can lead to less time with family and friends due to the unusual hours being worked. A lack of sleep can exacerbate this, and both may contribute to problems with mental health.

If this all seems like doom and gloom, don't worry, there are several positive steps you can start to take to reduce these effects on your health, such as diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep.

Night shifts’ effect on sleep

Night shifts disturb the natural pattern of sleep, and night shift workers are more likely to have less sleep overall. Having an irregular sleep pattern can lead to insomnia and failing to feel fully refreshed when waking. It can be harder to get to sleep and may mean waking up feeling foggy and unfulfilled.

How to manage your sleeping pattern

It is hard, but optimising sleep and sleep patterns wherever possible is really important. On days you’ll be doing nightshifts try and stick to a regular sleep routine either side of these shifts. Although it’s not overnight and these may also change throughout your week, it will give your body some semblance of normality.

Try and get used to napping, as this may be more realistic than long stretches of sleep. To get to sleep more easily during the day make sure you mimic a night time environment as much as possible including black out blinds, no blue light (e.g. phones) and ear plugs if necessary. The best sleep pattern for night shifts will depend on how many you do, and if a regular routine or more sporadic.

Tips for staying awake on a night shift

Especially if you are new to night shifts your body will try to resist and will naturally become sleepier during the night. It’s important to stay alert while you’re working however, or you could risk patient safety.

1. Minimise reliance on caffeine and energy drinks
Although these will initially give you a spike in energy levels they will also lead to a lull, risking you feeling sleepier than before

2. Eat small, healthy snacks before and during your shift
Try to avoid large meals if you can, as they tend to have a soporific effect. Instead, aim to eat smaller portions throughout your shift, giving you a steadier release of energy. Best snacks for night shifts? Try to avoid ultra-processed snacks which aren’t nutritious, instead opt for nutrient-rich foods such as:

      • Bananas: a great way of getting energy quickly, with three naturally occurring sugars in them.

      • Wholegrains: Overloading with carbs can make you sleepy, but they are still important. Incorporating whole grains in to your snacks will you give you a slow energy release; they take a lot longer to digest in to sugar than refined carbs (which may give you a quick spike but aren’t as filling and will lead to a dip).

      • Nuts and seeds: Small and mighty, these protein-packed nibbles will give you energy and are surprisingly filling for their size.

      • Boiled eggs: Also pack a small protein punch and won’t make you feel overly full, yet they provide long-term satiation.

3. Hydrate
Make sure you drink plenty of water, dehydration may contribute to sluggishness.

4. Stay active
When not tending to patients try to stretch your legs or engage in tasks that require some physical activity. This will keep you more alert than sitting in one place.

Effect of night shifts on mental health

Lack of or irregular sleep not only affects physical health it can lead to impaired mental health. Regulating our body’s chemistry includes our brain chemistry. A lack of natural daylight can be a cause for depression and not only that, working night shifts can mean you’re out of sync with close relatives and friends. Connecting with other people is vital in maintaining positive mental health.

Night shifts effect on diet and eating habits

Being tired can mean reaching for quick and easy snacks that offer our bodies a quick hit of energy, such as crisps, cake or chocolate. While these might give the quick hit you’re after they’re not sufficiently nutritious to stave off hunger for long, and risk a greater slump afterwards.

Working anti-social hours can mean not having the time to prepare cooked meals, or your body not wanting these. Try and eat healthily during and between shifts for slower released energy, and if cooking large meals is too time-consuming stick to small and regular meals. A good diet for night shift workers incorporates an array of nutrients, wholegrains and protein - a balanced diet can help regulate your body where your sleep pattern may disrupt it. How to work a night shift and stay healthy means looking after your diet and maintaining an active lifestyle.

How to stay alert and focused when driving or travelling home after a night shift

Depending on how tired you feel and how long you have to travel these are short term fixes that should see you home. If you are extremely tired while driving home after a night shift always pull over for a break.

  1. Blast loud music
    Whatever floats your boat – rock, happy hardcore, techno (maybe skip classical just this once) – pick something with an upbeat tempo or that you can sing your heart out too.

  2. Or blast cold air
    Windows down if it isn’t raining, or aircon of it is. Cooler air (especially fresh) should keep you alert for a time.

  3. Snack on mints or eat something spicy before you set off
    The coolness of mints and the heat of chillies can make you feel a little more alert. Snacking generally should give you a boost of energy that can help you make it home.

  4. Coffee
    It’s no long-term fix as it can cause a slump after a short while (as does chocolate/sugary drinks) but a quick caffeine boost can give you a jolt of alertness for the journey home.

  5. Nap
    If the above isn’t enough create time before you leave for a short nap, or pull over to nap during your journey home. Your bed will be calling you but rushing home isn’t worth risking your safety for.

While working the night shift often comes with the nursing territory, if you’re not feeling satisfied in your role, we want to help! Whether working in primary care or acute nursing, our skilled recruitment consultants are currently working on a number of opportunities and may have the right role for you.

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