Working the Night Shift: Is It For You?

Nurses who prefer working the night shift will tell you that the benefits go far beyond the extra pay. Sure, you may be able to work the night shift part-time and make a full-time salary, due to the shift differential bonus. But you may also find the pace is less frantic without doctors making rounds, housekeepers rolling carts down the hallways, and family members popping in and out of patient rooms. Time and time again, we’ve heard nurses say their favorite part of working the night shift is being able to focus on pure patient care, without the usual daytime distractions.

If you’ve decided the night shift suits your lifestyle, you may want to invest in some basic tools to help you get the rest you need.

But there are pitfalls to the night shift as well. Perhaps you’ve read about the body’s internal “clock” and how your natural circadian rhythm is regulated by the 24-hour cycle of sunlight and darkness. This day-to-night cycle is involved in hormone production, body temperature regulation, brain wave activity, and the natural urges to sleep and eat. When it is disrupted by a pattern of working nights and sleeping in the daytime, it can lead to a syndrome known as shift work disorder – characterized by fatigue, difficulty sleeping or excessive sleepiness, headaches, irritability, or lack of concentration.

To get around these potential pitfalls, night shift nurses have to make it a priority to get enough sleep. Many say they do this by coming home from work in the morning and going right to bed. Others find they can best balance work with family life by splitting up sleep time into two sessions, perhaps sleeping while the kids are at school, getting up when they come home, then taking a nap just before going to work in the evening.

Specialists in sleep medicine advise shiftworkers to get the best rest by being as consistent as possible with the hours they’re asleep and awake. This means continuing with your workday pattern even on your days off. Yet, this is easier said than done for many nurses. If you have a family that is active at home on weekends, it may be difficult or impossible for you to sleep during the day on your days off. It may also be challenging to get errands done if you’re never awake during the day – although many nurses find there are no checkout lines at 24-hour grocery stores during the off-hours. As a result, many nurses say they “flip” their sleep schedule on weekends or other days off. 

If you’ve decided the night shift suits your lifestyle, you may want to invest in some basic tools to help you get the rest you need: room-darkening shades, a sleep mask, ear plugs, or white noise generator (this can be as simple as an electric fan or as sophisticated as a mobile app that lets you choose between sounds like ocean waves or birdsong).

For more information on minimizing the disruptive effects of shift work, visit the website of the National Sleep Foundation.  If you’re going to work the night shift, you want to find a system that works for you and stick with it. The worst thing you can do – for yourself and your patients – is to start out a shift sleep-deprived.

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