Getting Through the Night Shift

It isn’t uncommon for nurses to at some point in their career to work the night shift. Some nurses like to work late knowing they will get the opportunity to be a leader. There are fewer people working, so the opportunity to stand out and be recognized as a professional in the field can happen at night when it could be possible to be overlooked during the day.

Nicole Helstowski, MSN, RN, NE-BC, a faculty program director at Excelsior College explains, “the autonomy that prevails on night shift can assist nurses in developing their leadership skills, communication skills, and collaboration skills at a more rapid pace than day shift nurses.” Patient behavior can also be different during the night, posing challenges that night nurses need to deal with, often with little assistance from co-workers. Helstowski notes, “Patients with delirium or sundowner’s syndrome can make night shift challenging. Confusion can cause a patient to get out of bed and fall, or pull out a drainage or intravenous device…serious issues tend to happen in the night. It is very satisfying to know that while the rest of the world is sleeping, I was awake and there to help that person in their time of need.”

And as health professionals know, nights will full moons bring in higher numbers of people in need. “Doctors and nurses have long known that the night of a full moon will create high acuity and abundant patient needs for the healthcare team,” says Helstowski.

According to the American Nurses Association, working night shift can raise your risk for car crashes, the risk of developing obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, and increase your risk for cancer. Helstowski suggests, “Many nurses gain weight on the night shift. It’s easy to reach for a sugary, high-calorie snack to combat fatigue. The cafeterias are not open at night, and so you are stuck bringing in food from home for a meal or visiting a vending machine. Meal planning and keeping healthy snacks in your locker can prevent hunger pains that may cause you to make poor food choices.”

Vitamin D may also become more important.

“Taking a high-grade Vitamin D supplement was necessary to improve a Vitamin D deficiency that occurred early on in my night shift career,” recalls Helstowski. “Because night shift workers are not exposed to much sunlight, they are at greater risk for Vitamin D deficiency. Deficiency can lead to brittle bones, fatigue, and pain in the muscles.”

So, what can you do to help yourself stay healthy while working the night shift? Keep healthier options available that are easy to grab as you run out the door to work. This can include healthier or organic options of frozen meals, precut vegetables, low fat cheese sticks, Greek yogurt, low-sugar protein bars, and other option you prepare at home and brown bag to bring to work. Remember to bring vegetable and protein snacks so that you are less likely to grab a candy bar or bag of chips from the vending machine. If you have a locker or place to store items, keep protein bars, pouches of tuna, or other snacks that are shelf stable for those times when you forgot your lunch or snacks at home. Drink plenty of water throughout the night.

Other tips from Helstowski are:

  • Use caffeine as necessary to stay alert (especially mid-shift)
  • Stay warm. The natural drop in body temperature at night can make you feel sluggish so dress in layers.
  • Get on a routine sleep schedule. Check with your co-workers to see what works for them, and be willing to try new things. This can include sound machines or ear plugs to drown out extraneous noise. Try room-darkening drapes or an eye shade to help you get into sleep mode.
  • Give yourself time to adjust, and remember why you chose to work nights. It may be to cut back on child care expenses, to spend time with an aging parent, or your own personal reasons.