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Night-Shift Nursing: Tips For Making it Easier

More than half of the nurses working in hospitals and long-term care facilities will be working night shifts.

Patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities need nursing care 24/7 — and more than half of the nurses will be working overly long shifts that go all night. So it’s important to recognize the impact on your life and health and look for ways to reduce it.

Depending on the policies of the facility and the medical department, nursing shifts can be eight, nine, ten, or 12 hours long — coupled with the difficulty of the work, it can all put an unusual amount of strain on the body and mind.

Research indicates that long shifts disturb sleep/wake cycles and circadian rhythms and leave less time for taking care of family and non-work responsibilities. The immediate effects of repeated long work hours include stress, fatigue, negative mood, discomfort, physiologic dysfunction, and poor health behaviors (overeating, smoking, and lack of exercise). In addition, being over-tired increases exposure to hazards at work, and a stressed body recovers slowly from injury and illness.

Many systems of the body are negatively affected:

  • Immune functioning is compromised.
  • Insulin metabolism becomes unbalanced, promoting insulin resistance.
  • Circulating appetite hormones increase, driving overeating and obesity.
  • Mental function is impaired.

Poor or insufficient sleep can lead to a broad range of health and safety risks, including premature death, obesity, vehicle crashes, worker errors, and various chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

Still, shift work is prevalent in nursing and will remain so. Longer shifts (particularly 12-hour shifts standard in critical care, the ED, long-term care, and other settings) are associated with the greatest disturbances to sleep, mood, and normal function.

Many nurses opt for 12-hour shifts because it means 3-day work weeks — which sounds wonderful at first, but a 12-hour shift doesn’t end after 12 hours. It’s never easy to walk away at the end of the shift when patients need help and there usually aren’t enough hands to go around. After that, there’s documentation. Often, by the time you get home from a 12-hour shift, it’s been nearly 15 hours, and it’s time to go to bed.

When you finally get home to sleep, you have to fool your body clock to allow you to sleep during the day. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Hang blackout drapes in your bedroom to emulate nighttime.
  • Wear earplugs to block out daytime noises.
  • Some nurses take melatonin to help them fall asleep.
  • Follow a sleep schedule, even while doing a night shift, by going to bed at the same time during the day and waking up at the same time.
  • Avoid eating before you go to sleep.
  • Follow the same regular wake-up routines (brushing teeth, shower, breakfast, etc.) you would on a regular sleep/wake schedule.
  • Stick to whatever work schedule you are on, even on your days off, to help your body maintain that cycle.
  • Try to eat healthy foods and get regular exercise on your days on and your days off.
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