10 Tips for Surviving a String of Night Shifts

I’m fortunate that, as a nurse practitioner, my employer allows me to split night, evening, and day shifts. Switching sleep schedules isn’t easy, but it’s better than constant sleep deprivation. My friends always tell me that having a baby will be easy for me as I am “used to not sleeping”. I sometimes think I would crush Navy Seal training, as I am accustomed to overnight physical activity, getting a few hours of sleep, and repeating several days in a row. While neither is probably the case, working the night shift is not for the whiners.

We all know working the night shift is hard on your body. In fact, study after study shows the nocturnal life is downright bad for you. It’s so bad, that pop culture is even beginning to address the health hazard. Just ask Arianna Huffington. But, for us as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, sometimes we just don’t have a choice. Or, our “go get ’em” personalities lead us to approach the wacky schedule as a challenge to be conquered. Whatever your reason for life as a night shifter, there are a few ways NPs and PAs can make sleep deprivation just a bit more tolerable. 

Here are a few tips from a seasoned night shifter. 

1. Resist the temptation of daytime obligations – I am guilty of using my night shift schedule to attempt an increase productivity. I can run errands during the day, and work all night, right? Just because you aren’t working while the rest of the world is awake, doesn’t mean you can participate. Staying awake 24/7 just doesn’t work. 

2. Distract yourself – Staying busy keeps zzz’s at bay. In the event of some downtime, find tasks to keep you busy. Organize your workspace. Help prepare things for the next shift. Complete a few continuing education credits online. Siting idle will only make you sleepy.

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3. Keep moving – Physical activity helps keep your energy up throughout a long shift, and prevents your eyelids from falling. Try working at a standing computer station. Take a lap around the department if you’re tired. A lengthy shift on your feet is exhausting, but activity does prevent shuteye.

4. Watch your food intake – I often find myself eating junk food to stay awake…and a lot of it. A better solution is to pack plenty of healthy snacks to munch on throughout the night. Keep in mind, the hospital cafeteria will likely be closed during your shift, and the provider lounge food supply picked over. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water – it’s easy to neglect hydrating at night.

5. Caffeinate carefully – Caffeine is the best friend of a night shifter. Avoid too much caffeine, however, at the end of shift. Otherwise, sleep may evade you when you get off work. I find that coffee helps me stay awake better than soda. Steer clear of sugary beverages that mess with your blood sugar and lead to an energy crash

6. Avoid drowsy driving – Admission. I have fallen asleep at the wheel post night shift. I ran a red light, and was pulled over by an understanding officer. I often imagine that the worst thing that can happen once I leave the hospital exhausted, is to end right back up where I came from…as a patient. Risking an accident isn’t worth it. Know when you need to Uber home, or have a sig-o pick you up. Getting behind the wheel drowsy is not a good idea.

7. Minimize sleep disruptions –  When you sleep unconventional hours, you must be intentional to get uninterrupted shuteye. Hang a sign on your front door discouraging the UPS guy from knocking. Disconnect your doorbell. Place a fan in your room to dull background noise.

8. Light proof your bedroom – Blackout curtains. Enough said.

9. Use UV blocking glasses – Your circadian clock is a force to be reckoned with. Despite sleep deprivation, any sign of light can make you feel awake. Consider wearing blue blocking glasses that keep wakeful rays at bay during your drive home.

10. Find a routine that works for you – I have always been one to crawl immediately into bed after a night or evening shift. Many of my coworkers however, stay awake for a few hours, catching zzz’s after decompressing for a few hours. Try different methods for getting rest with a nighttime schedule. Stick with the one that works best for you.

11. You’re in it together – The best thing about the night shift? Camaraderie. Night shifters are simply more fun. With fewer administrative duties than daytime coworkers, working after hours can mean more time to bond as a team. Take advantage of the challenges you face, and make the most of your schedule together.

What advice do you have for nurse practitioners pulling all nighters?


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