Working shift schedules can be tough. When you’re making a shift change as a nurse or other medical professional, your sleep patterns can suffer. On average, a nurse gets around 6.8 hours of sleep per day, instead of the recommended eight hours by the National Sleep Foundation. Ongoing sleep deprivation can lead to sleep debt over time, which is not easily recovered and can hinder mental function and physical ability. Working with patients in your traveling medical job means you need to be alert, focused and at the top of your game during your shift, but instead you’re borrowing time and slipping more and more into your sleep debt cycle. So, how do you fix it?
How To Catch Some Zzz’s On Your New Travel Assignment
First, what is sleep debt?
Sleep debt is defined as a total, or cumulative effect of not getting enough rest. Partial sleep deprivation can occur when someone sleeps too little for an extended period of time—days or weeks. Total sleep deprivation means you are awake for 24 hours or more. Both of these deprivations can add time to your sleep debt. It’s like racking up time debt with your brain and borrowing against it in order to stay awake.
A 2010 study found the percentage of healthcare workers who reported 6 or fewer hours of sleep per day increased from 28% in the mid-1980s to 32% in the mid-2000s. As a medical traveler, you’re not only accounting for the sleep debt that your fellow healthcare workers contend with, but additionally—time zone changes and shift changes with each assignment every 13 weeks. Night shifts can counter balance your body’s natural rhythm, which is to sleep at night and be active during the day, and it’s linked to poor sleep, illness, interruptions in your circadian-rhythm, and strains on your life outside of work.
Unfortunately, shift work can’t be changed or eliminated totally, because hospitals and healthcare facilities require shift nurses and healthcare to be available around the clock for their patients. Not only that, but medical travelers need to be focused and alert when they’re helping patients each day. No daydreaming or falling asleep on the job.
So, you’re sleep deprived and that’s just “part of the job” as a travel nurse, right? What do you do? Medical travel jobs are still in demand and some of them are definitely going to be night shift. It’s a challenge for facilities to come up with ways to make medical services available 24/7 while at the same time, keeping medical travelers healthy, not overworked, well-rested, and safe.
It seems like the only answer on the traveler side of things is to find ways to sleep better when you can. So how are you supposed to get good quality sleep? There are a few tools that can help:
Hey, how's your mattress?
When you’re a medical traveler, you don’t always get to choose where you rest your head. Since you’re moving around from place to place, you might not be hauling a mattress around for 13-week assignments. Additionally, if you’re on a shift where you’re sleeping at your facility sometimes, you don’t get a big choice in mattress selection. You sleep where you can, when you can. One thing to make those other mattresses more comfortable is a mattress topper. Invest in one you can take with you to each travel assignment. It will save your back and shoulder muscles, as well as your varying sleep cycle.
Try an eye mask or blackout curtains.
Night shifts can mean you’re catching all your zzz’s during the day. Wearing an eye mask (a la Breakfast At Tiffany’s style) can help block out the light. It will basically trick your body and brain, helping you fall asleep and stay asleep when you’re getting your rest while the sun’s blazing.
If you think something covering your face is uncomfortable while you sleep, consider blackout curtains. Blackout curtains can help your body adjust to this jolt in your circadian rhythm. Some of the best blackout curtains for night shift are the blackout EZTM Window Cover. They claim to be better than standard blackout curtains and window treatments, because there are no rods or hooks to install them and there’s no tools or measurements required in order to put them up. Easy.
Download sound apps.
Turn your smartphone from a distraction into a helpful tool by downloading some handy sleep apps to help you sleep more soundly. You can find guided meditations, thunderstorm simulation, white noise and nature playlists. Really, anything that helps you sleep, you can find in a sound app or playlist. Some of the best ones are listed here, along with other apps that help you relieve stress so you can relax better and increase your quality of sleep.
While there’s always a gadget or an app for everything, there are other things to consider when dealing with sleep debt. It’s called sleep hygiene.
What is sleep hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is just a fancy way of saying you’re putting healthy habits into place to better adjust your sleep and maximize it. To start, you track your sleep patterns—most people use an Apple Watch with the Sleep++ app, but any fitness tracker with a sleep setting should work.
Track your sleep for one week and note any emerging, harmful patterns. What kind of sleep are you getting? Is it interrupted often? When you’re nabbing bits and pieces of rest here and there on your travel assignment, it can seem daunting to add more to your plate at first. However, these patterns will help you understand and find ways to get more meaningful rest in your down time. It’s worth it, I promise!
After you track your sleep for a week, implement new rituals in order to eliminate these harmful patterns. A few to start with:
Create a “getting ready for bed” ritual.
I know how it sounds. You have to do more stuff before you sleep? Obviously, when you’re dealing with a travel nursing job or medical traveler job, you’re thinking of the amount of time you have to sleep, rather than the quality of it. Creating a set list of tasks you do to get ready for bed can actually help your body and mind relax and understand that it’s time to rest now. Some suggestions from your Fusion fam: brushing your teeth, a skincare routine, aromatherapy sprays or oils, fixing a mug of tea, reading a chapter or two of a book, investing in a nice pair of pajamas,
Shut your screens off.
TV, tablets, and smartphones can be a huge distraction when you’re trying to create a healthy sleep pattern. I can’t tell you how many times I have mindlessly scrolled Instagram while laying in bed, only to look at the time and see that an hour has gone by. Binge-watching Game of Thrones so you can finally watch the last season is a great goal to have, but not at bedtime. Screens are designed to keep our eyes and brains engaged and alert. Make a point to shut all screens off a half hour before you go to bed. This includes tablets and e-readers. Pick up a good old-fashioned paperback book or an actual magazine if you’ve created a reading bedtime ritual.
Cut down on caffeine and alcohol.
We all enjoy that cup of coffee first thing when were up and about, especially if you’re working a night shift as a medical traveler but sipping on it all the time isn’t doing your sleep hygiene any favors. Additionally, energy drinks can be effective for up to 8 hours after they’re consumed. So all that caffeine running through your body is still doing it’s job more than halfway through a 12-hour shift.
Alcohol can seem like a good way to wind down after a long day, because it makes you feel sleepy. However, it’s can keep you from getting actual restful sleep. Stop consuming alcohol a couple hours before starting your bedtime ritual or going to bed.
Create an oasis.
We supposedly spend one third of our lives sleeping. So, make the space worth it! When you’re a medical traveler on assignment, your bedroom can change every 13 weeks. So, sure, don’t start hanging wallpaper or soundproofing the walls, but you can implement smaller things to make your space more cozy, relaxing and optimal for sleep. Invest in some high-quality sheets and pillows and keep your room temperature low—the optimal temp for sleep should be on the cooler side.
Readjusting your sleep patterns when you’re on a travel assignment can be a multi-step process, but an important one when you think of the long-term effect of sleep debt and the quality of sleep you’re receiving. Using a few tools to improve your sleep quality, while tracking your sleep patterns can be good ways to help you fine-tune new bedtime rituals, increasing your chances for more restful sleep. When you’re more focused and more alert from better sleep, you can get more out of your medical travel job and more out of life.
Now, go to bed.