Your phone vibrates aggressively on the nightstand next to your bed as your midday alarm goes off. You let out a big sigh as you remember: it’s daytime and your groggy eyes open to the sunlight peeking in through your blackout curtains. As you peel yourself from your bed sheets, you’re already mentally preparing yourself for the long night that awaits you on your first night shift as a professional medical traveler.
It’s a struggle to get used to a different sleep schedule. 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, there’s daylight savings to contend with, plus seasonal allergies that can knock us out. When you’re changing your work and sleep hours as a medical traveler, it’s even more jolting.
There are more than 22 million Americans who work evening, rotating, or on-call shifts. So, when you're making the shift change as a traveling medical worker, how do you survive your very first night shift?
Tips for Your First Night Shift as a Medical Traveler
Prepare yourself for the change mentally, physically, and emotionally
In order to stay calm, cool, and collected on your first night shift as a medical traveler, it’s important to be as prepared as possible. That means planning ahead of time and taking care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally, so you walk into your first night shift feeling well-rested, confident, and ready to tackle what the night has in store.
Night shift prep starts much sooner than the day or week before your medical assignment. A few weeks before your job shift change, try to practice staying up later each night, sleeping in later each morning, and gradually increase the amount of time to naturally reset your circadian rhythm. For example, stay up 30 minutes longer than usual on Friday night, sleep in 30 minutes longer Saturday morning, then stay up an hour longer than your norm on Saturday night, and sleep in an hour longer Sunday morning.
Once you reach a consistent schedule that works for you, stick to it. Research shows that sleep consistency is vital for maintaining a non-traditional sleep schedule. In addition to a consistent sleep routine, it’s also important for you to continue with your other daily activities with time adjustments. If your usual routine is to wake up, work out, drink a mug of coffee, and head to your medical facility to save lives—keep that routine, but instead of waking up at 7 A.M., maybe now you’re getting out of bed at 4 P.M. to do your normal wake up routine.
Another way to get prepared for your first overnight as a medical worker is to give yourself permission to feel your feels, whatever they may be. If the graveyard shift isn’t your first choice, that’s ok—you’re not alone. Phone a friend, family member, or your agency recruiter to talk it out with a sympathetic ear prior to your first day, so you can start with a fresh mindset and positive attitude.
Prioritize your sleep health
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. 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 in and outside of your medical workplace.
Health research shows that adults aged 18 to 64 years old should sleep between seven and nine hours each night. Since sleeping opposite hours that you’re used to can be a difficult transition, there are many ways to get better sleep:
- Use a fan. Invest in a hard-working cooling fan and position it exactly where you want to increase the air flow in your room. This cooling effect helps maintain your body heat to keep you sound asleep for longer.
- Try blackout curtains. Blackout drapes are great because they can block up to 99 percent of sunlight from entering your room. Light exposure while asleep can hinder transitions between sleep cycles and reduce your overall quality of sleep. To avoid this, try blackout curtains to obstruct light from interrupting your sweet dreams.
- Enjoy a silent night with earbuds. There are many things that interrupt our good night’s sleep—early morning construction, late night traffic, unexpected alarms or sirens, and more. Avoid the frustration of a loud awakening by sleeping with headphones and block out all unwanted noise.
- Be kind to your body. Your body actively works day and night to keep you alive and healthy—the least we could do is be nice to it in return. Stretching before bed helps relax your muscles to decrease the chance of an interrupted night’s sleep. Studies show that stretching before bed leads to improved symptoms of insomnia and overall sleep quality.
Don’t underestimate the power of quick exercises
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. Whether your preferred workout is a squat challenge or jam session, exercise focuses your attention and lifts your mood.
It sounds obvious but drink your water! One more time for the folks in the back: 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.
Water has countless health benefits like increased focus and enhanced energy. Since your brain is approximately 75 percent water, drinking enough fluid is critical to your health. The amount of water you should drink depends on the air temperature, weight, exercise, and diet. However, it’s recommended adults drink between nine and 13 cups of water a day.
Entertain yourself during slow shift times
After you've experienced the full glory of a night shift, you might notice the atmosphere is a little more relaxed and quieter than it is during the daytime. Of course there will be times when your medical facility will be busy with patients who require your attention, but in general, medical workers report the graveyard shift to be more peaceful since the majority of patients are asleep and there are fewer visitors.
To keep yourself busy during those slow hours, bring a book or word puzzle to solve, and headphones to listen to music. Keep your mind active and focused to help the time fly by faster.
Get the most out of your time
Group your shifts together 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 personal time and hobbies will pay off. If this schedule is too intense for you, experiment with your scheduling over time to find out what works best with your pattern.
Self-care is the ultimate care
Self-care is extremely important to medical travelers, especially a night shift worker 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 and more successful at your job.
Learn the culture on your new travel assignment. Some facilities allow or require medical professionals and medical travelers to nap during long shift times, while others have a strict no sleeping policy. Figure out the vibe where you are and practice self-care in the workplace accordingly.
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 your new normal as prepared as possible, it can help ease your ever-changing schedule. The difference could be night and day.