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How Nurses Can Conquer Long Hours and Night Shifts

Nurses who brave the night shift are a vital part of the healthcare system. Hospitals must stay open 24 hours a day to take care of people who require round-the-clock care, and emergency rooms always be open because life-threatening situations can strike at any time.

Qualified nurses are integral to making sure patients have the same quality of care at 3 a.m. as they would at 3 p.m. Yet these nurses are working against the natural body rhythms that tell them to sleep through the darkest parts of the 24-hour cycle.

For those working the night shift -- about 4 to 5 percent of Americans, but up to 10 percent of healthcare workers -- it's even more essential to be mindful of diet, exercise and sleep than it is for first- and second-shift workers. Because night shift workers are fighting their brains' natural instincts to sleep at night -- and because those workers are trying to get sufficient sleep in the daytime, when most of the world is awake -- they're not getting the quality sleep that they need.

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

Parents of newborn children experience acutely what nurses working at night experience all the time -- unpredictable interruptions in sleep and being awake at night. The difference for night nurses, though, is that they attempt to keep this schedule for an extended period of time, unlike parents of newborns.

Many hospitals, looking to reduce both the number of evening shift nurses and the days per week a nurse has to work a night shift, have instituted 12-hour shifts for both day and night workers. It's a great innovation in many respects, but it can be challenging for the 12-hour night shift worker.

According to a article from March 2017, there are rising concerns from those who work long night-shifts. (75 percent of nurses in hospital settings work 12-hour shifts.)

The article quoted a study by the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Reporting System that showed working a 12-hour shift or working overtime was related to having trouble staying awake during the shift, reduced sleep times and nearly three times the risk of making an error. The most common medication errors, for example, were wrong doses, dose omission and extra doses -- all of which can be deadly.

3 Strategies for Night Nurses

There are some strategies that night-shift nurses can use to make their shifts go more smoothly, and perhaps more importantly, allow them to get the rest at home they need to come to their hospital shifts ready to work.

  1. Good Sleep, addressing the all-important issue about sleep during the day, suggests, "...night shift nurses should keep the same bedtime and wake time schedule (even on weekends); use eye masks and ear plugs to eliminate noise and lights from a sleep environment; as well as avoid consuming alcohol, caffeinated beverages, and foods close to bedtime." That also means keeping to strict rules at home -- significant others and children need to understand how sacred bedtime is.

  2. Healthy Diet

    It's important for night nurses to factor in diet. Eating small, frequent meals, especially ones high in fruits, vegetables and nuts, help with health and well-being. For those who prefer to eat full meals, choosing options that are high in protein, low in fat and incorporate complex carbohydrates are best.

    Bringing your own snacks -- nuts and small servings of proteins -- will help you avoid the rush and crash of candy bars and other sugary snacks. For many people, the initial surge of energy from such snacks gives way to fatigue that persists long after the burst of energy wears off. Remember that a 12-hour shift -- or even a traditional eight-hour shift -- is a marathon, not a sprint.

  3. Make the Most of Human Interaction

    That said, a night shift typically doesn't offer as much interaction or as much activity as other shifts. Doctors are home asleep, there aren't as many labs or other diagnostic tests being ordered, and even patients are seeking to sleep to try to capture a normal rhythm. (Though, truth be told, the combination of lab draw and vital sign checks will keep patients awake and alert during the night shift far more than they would like!)

    It's best for you to gauge the situation individually -- some patients might be night owls and want the interaction you can offer, whereas others just want to sleep. In either case, the patients' needs are a top concern.

It's not easy to stay awake when most of the rest of the world is sleeping. But it can also, ultimately, be one of the most important jobs in the hospital -- you're providing the support needed for a patient to get valuable sleep, or you're there for a patient unable to sleep at night who may need company.

Learn more about the University of West Florida's online RN to BSN program.

Sources: Long Hours, Shift Work Still Plague Nurses Survival Tips for Nurses Working the Night Shift

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