The alarm buzzes and you wake up a little confused. It’s dark outside, but you accidentally left all the lights on. You have no idea what time it is, and there’s a pile of Ritz crackers in your bed…. Oh wait, that’s just me?
Look, I am an absolute mess when I wake up in the morning. Notice how I said “the morning”… I don’t even have a non-traditional sleep schedule like some of the medical travelers out there, and it’s still a struggle to get my bearings. If I had a nickel for every time I hit the snooze button, I would be a very wealthy woman.
In the winter, we deal with shorter days, and long, cold hours of darkness that can make motivation an uphill battle. As springtime rolls around, it gets better… but then there’s daylight savings to contend with, and thunderstorm weather that can leave anyone a little foggy-brained. When you’re changing your work and sleep hours as a medical traveler, it’s even more jolting. One minute you’re sleeping during the day and working long evening shifts, and the next you’re back to a regularly scheduled nighttime sleep routine.
Overcoming sleep problems caused by a non-traditional work schedule can be, well… exhausting. It’s frustrating when most things are planned around a day worker’s schedule. Like, when are you supposed to go to the post office? Maybe your favorite grocery store has traditional hours, making that 5 a.m. toaster waffle errand a bit of a challenge. Even onsite and offsite gyms can have restricted hours, making your night shift even tougher to navigate.
And there’s a lot of you out there! There are approximately 22 million Americans who work evening, rotating, or on-call shifts. So when you're making the shift change, how do survive your very first night shift?
Tips For Your First Night Shift
For your first night shift, you want to be prepared as much as possible. That means planning ahead of time to go into your night shift healthy, well-rested, and with a positive attitude.
Stay healthy: First and foremost, you need to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. It starts much sooner than taking on that first night shift. Exercise and eating healthy are two huge components to keeping yourself up and at 'em, even when you're working a day shift or different schedule. You don't have to pass up that break room cake, but you do need to make active choices that fuel your body and keep you energized. Creating a meal plan and an exercise plan can help you manage your time, especially when you're getting ready to switch to a night shift. Plus, when you're switching schedules, it helps to be prepared so you aren't running out for fast food during a break or finding no time at the end of your work week to get a quick workout in.
Stay well-rested: Whether you’re switching from day shift to night shift or vice versa, you can be more susceptible to getting sick, since your body is getting used to a new sleep cycle. You’re also prone to Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD), which interrupts your circadian rhythm and can manifest in insomnia and wake-time sleepiness, like falling asleep on the job or impaired mental sharpness and reaction time. Studies show that being tired can have a negative effect on several things, including: attention span, concentration time, reaction time, mood, and memory. So make sure you preemptively allow yourself enough time to sleep. I know, it’s easier said than done, but the sooner you can ease yourself into a new sleep routine, the better off you’ll be both at work and during other activities.
Stay active on the job: Because sleep is such a big component in shift changes, it can help to avoid the tedious and monotonous tasks you need to accomplish around 4 a.m. (when night shift workers tend to experience the most fatigue.) If you’re feeling a bit sleepy on the job, try some exercise. It seems like the last thing you’d want to do is pick up those running shoes when you want to pick up a pillow, but even just a small movement to get the blood pumping can help. Take the stairs a few floors, take a walk around the facility, or dance it out to one of Fusion’s Travel Playlists or our Make The Rounds playlist on Spotify. Really, who would pass up the opportunity for a 4 a.m. hospital dance party?
Stay hydrated: Drink water! I'll say it again: drink. water. We all love our caffeine, and rightfully so. You're always on-the-go and caffeine can help you perk up on those long shifts in a pinch, but it doesn't work forever and it only helps in moderation. There's no need to sound the alarm... nobody is telling you to ditch that latte. But as with most things we tend to enjoy in life (hello, cheesecake)—it does well to limit your caffeine intake. Too much caffeine (yes, not just coffee but energy drinks and soda too) may lead to blood pressure spikes and an increased risk for heart attacks. So enjoy your cup of joe or your fizzy drink, but try to break the habit of pouring one after another, or cracking open that second aluminum can. Drink some water instead! Water has all sorts of health benefits and staying hydrated helps you stay alert.
Stay positive: One of the biggest complaints from travelers is the night shift. And sure, I get it. Maybe taking on a night shift isn't your ideal work environment. You could go into it with a sour face and a negative demeanor, but what good will that do? You're still there, doing your job and making things happen. Why not make the most of it? Bring a little laughter and positive energy to your fellow night shift workers. People don't like negativity, so if you want to make friends, or honestly just avoid making enemies, focus on the good things and help each other out. After all, you're in this together!
After you've experienced the full glory of a night shift, you can do a few things to make sliding into your new schedule a little easier to maintain.
Create a work-life balance. It can be easy to spend your days off huddled up on your couch, relaxing. After all, working a night shift can be exhausting. But don't forget about the other things you have going on in your life. Family and friends are important, and so is quality time for you. Make sure you give yourself opportunities to get out there to see new things and meet new people. Starting a night shift can make your schedule a little trickier than usual, but with a little planning, your social life can soar!
Group your shifts together. To get the most out of your time and to give yourself that work-life balance and some semblance of a normal schedule, work longer shifts, like a twelve-hour schedule. When you give yourself a twelve-hour shift, your body gets into the groove of night shift work. Try bucketing your shifts into two or three day cycles, so that you have the maximum amount of time to enjoy life outside of work. This routine can seem a little daunting, but the time off to enjoy family, friends, activities and adventuring in your new town might payoff. If this schedule is too intense for you, experiment with your scheduling over time to find out what works best with your pattern.
Prioritize yourself. We have been seeing self care routines all over the place and we're hopping on board! Self care is extremely important to medical travelers, especially a night shift nurse or someone tackling a new schedule. As you fall into a routine with your night shifts, create self care routines too. Whether that means taking 10 minutes each time you wake up to relax and set your intention for the day, having an afternoon of "you time" on your days off, treating yourself to a snack break, or simply creating a bedtime routine to help you wind down from the energy of the day, taking care of yourself and your health, mentally and physically, can help you be better at your job.
Hey night shift crew, we know you’re out there. We hear you, and we know the struggle is real. Switching to night shift for the first time can be overwhelming , but if you go into it as prepared as possible, it can help ease your ever-changing schedule. The difference could be night and day.