Being a night shift nurse can be extremely rewarding and heroic. It can also be incredibly grueling. Before you sign up to this gig, here are a few survival tips. And for those of you with no interest in such work, read on to see some of the challenges that face these tireless heroes who do such vital, life-saving work.
1. Understand your inner clock.
Your circadian clock is your internal inclination to follow a normal 24-hour cycle. It also helps to regulate many of your body processes: hormones, temperature, heart rate, etc. The more you understand about these rhythms (and how your job will mess with them), the better off you’ll be. Realize that you will naturally crave sleep between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., and do what it takes to train your body to, well, do the opposite of what it naturally wants to do.
It may not be at the ideal time every day, and you’ll likely have to schedule your sleep instead of just falling into a normal routine like everybody else you know, but it’s even more important for you. Get blackout curtains for your room. Use eye masks or ear plugs or white noise machines to optimize your sleep environment. Make a sleep schedule and stick to it. Make sure you get long periods of uninterrupted sleep and that your family respects these periods.
2. Keeping yourself healthy is key.
The healthier you are, the better prepared your body will be to survive night shifts. Keep an eye out for conditions you’re at a higher risk for than your daytime components, like insomnia, daytime drowsiness, high blood pressure, diabetes, menstrual irregularities, common colds, and weight gain. Make sure to exercise and be active—it will help you stay alert. And make sure to eat right: reach for snacks high in protein and complex sugars, rather than candy and chips. Drink plenty of water. Having a healthy home life can help reinforce all the good habits you’ll need to cultivate to stay afloat at work.
3. Bond with your coworkers.
Your coworkers are like a family—even more so when you’re all working in the trenches of the night shift. It’s a much different, and often more intimate environment. Take advantage of this to really work as a team, communicating effectively, and being able to rely on each other when the going gets tough.
4. Don’t overdo the caffeine.
Caffeine can be your friend—it can boost your alertness just when you need it. Remember to give yourself 25 minutes or so for it to kick in. But be judicious—too much caffeine can make you jittery or affect your out-of-work sleep quality. Find a balance that works for you and doesn’t compromise your sleep.
5. Schedule your home life.
It’s important that you keep your home life going strong, so it’s a place of comfort and stability. This might mean having to schedule things that normal families take for granted. But it’s worth it. Make sure you’re staying in constant touch—through texts, emails, phone calls, etc. Leave post-it notes or start a bulletin board to stay connected. And make sure to have a few date nights on the books if you have a special someone.
6. Know the costs.
Being a night nurse is really tough. The hospital may be a bit quieter, but patients are rarely able to sleep and often are needier or more anxious at night. Your patients might even get a bit angry or disgruntled as the night progresses. You’ll also get a lot of the leftover grunt work no one in the day shift wanted to do. And if you get hungry? Forget about it. The cafeteria will long have closed.
That said, if you remember to stock up on snacks and food to fuel your shift, and you can learn to adjust your inner clock (and withhold your rage at the FedEx guy or the ice cream truck), you’ll also have the benefit of an extremely important and gratifying job—and one that offers a bit more flexibility than other, more regularly scheduled gigs.