Surviving shift work

23 November 2017

Nursing is a round-the-clock job, and when other staff go home at 5 p.m. the night shift nurses are there with only their skills and colleagues to count on. The duties and responsibilities are no different for a nurse that works during the day or overnight, but shift work does present unique challenges. The workplace atmosphere and schedule at night require a significant adjustment to a nurse’s daily routine and personal life. With the majority of patients asleep, nurses must find ways to manage what is sometimes considered a less busy workload while continuously monitoring patients through the night.

Shift work is hard because it involves working against your body’s circadian rhythm - the body’s natural inclination to follow a 24-hour cycle. Nurses need to be active and alert at night when their bodies are designed to sleep, and need to sleep in the day when people are naturally wired to be awake. At the end of a night shift, sleeping throughout the day is sometimes unfortunately difficult to achieve, and can lead to shift work sleep disorder in the long term.

Health workers make up 32.3 per cent of shift workers in Australia, with nurses accounting for the bulk of those hours. Nurses must work the off-shifts and cope with the problems that come with it, and not just with their sleep patterns. According to the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders, shift workers are at increased risk for a variety of chronic illnesses, as well as higher occupational injuries, and fatigue-related safety issues affecting patient outcomes.

Tips For Surviving Shift Work

  • Get an Adequate Amount of Sleep. Make sleep a priority when at home. Take measures to create an environment conducive for sleep by using curtains that darken the room, earplugs and eye masks, and disconnecting things that will disrupt sleep, such as the door bell, phones and electronics.
  • Bonding with co-workers not only makes the night shift easier to handle, but thorough communication between co-workers can also help increase the likelihood that a shift will run smoothly.
  • Use Caffeinated Products Wisely. Caffeine is an effective method for offsetting fatigue, but drinking too much coffee can have its own issues. Plan to stop drinking caffeine five hours before intending to sleep.
  • Make Healthier Meal and Snack Choices. Adopt a ‘grazing’ approach towards eating with smaller, more frequent light meals that include high-protein, complex carbohydrate, and low-fat foods.
  • Monitor Your Health. Shift workers face a higher risk of experiencing insomnia, daytime sleepiness, high blood pressure, diabetes, menstrual irregularities, colds and weight gain than day shift employees. Actively take care of your own health.
  • Find Constructive Ways to Keep Busy. Having only nurses and patients present during the night shift allows nurses to administer excellent patient care on a more intimate level. It’s also an opportunity in quieter times to complete work that would otherwise be left for day shifts.
  • Exercise or Get Active to Stay Alert. Staying active during breaks is an effective way to boost energy levels. The most fatigue and drowsiness tends to occur around 4 a.m., so nurses should avoid completing the most tedious or monotonous tasks during that time.

Related Reading on CKN

Reducing Risks to Women Linked to Shift Work, Long Work Hours, and Related Workplace Sleep and Fatigue Issues.

The impact of shift work on the psychological and physical health of nurses in a general hospital: a comparison between rotating night shifts and day shifts.

The Impact of Shift Work on Nurses' Quality of Sleep.

Impact of shift work on critical care nurses.

Association between rotating night shift work and risk of coronary heart disease among women.