As a travel nurse, you may be working night shifts – or may soon be asked to. While taking night shifts comes with the territory of travel nursing, it can be a challenge to transition from your normal schedule, particularly when you’re in a new assignment in a different time zone. In fact, many nurses fall victim to shift work sleep disorder which can lead to a range of health difficulties and increased incidence of errors at work. However, there are several strategies you can take when adjusting to a night shift schedule and remain healthy and energized even when you are up all night.
1. Adjust Your Body Clock and Sleep Patterns. The National Sleep Foundation says adults (24-64 years old) should get at least seven hours of sleep, but six hours is acceptable. Therefore, it’s critical you adjust to your new sleep pattern and stick to it when working nights. Cleveland Clinic recommends you limit the number of consecutive night shifts to five or fewer, giving your body a better chance of adjusting to new sleep patterns. If your schedule requires you to be on the job for 12 hours at a stretch, try not work more than four such shifts in a row. However, UCLA’s Sleep Disorders Center suggests night shift workers make an effort to stay on the same sleep schedule even on days off to help your body better cope with a sleep pattern that doesn’t match the natural circadian rhythms.
To help ensure you get enough shut-eye during the day, follow these tips:
- Acquire some easy-to-transport blackout drapes that can work in most windows and/or an eye mask to help you diminish the circadian rhythm that can keep you awake during the day.
- Avoid distractions such as cell phones, television, or computers screens when you head to bed.
- Wear ear plugs and/or use a white noise app on your phone to drown out daytime noises.
- Consider nontraditional rooms for sleeping if your bedroom isn’t working, such as a large walk-in closet or any other room with no windows. Some travel nurses opt for bed tents to create a secluded, dark environment to catch some z’s.
- Try not to fall right into bed following your shift. Instead, do things to help you unwind and destress such as grabbing a bite to eat, doing yoga or meditation, or drinking a cup of decaffeinated tea or coffee.
2. Prepare Your Housemates. If you live with loved ones or roommates, they also need to learn how to adjust to your new night shift schedule. It’s important to discuss your needs with your family or housemates to help create a quiet sleeping environment for you. Try hanging a sign on your door or post your work schedule somewhere that can easily be seen when you are trying to sleep. Also, find time to share a meal with your loved ones such as eating breakfast together when you get home or having dinner before you leave for your shift.
3. Follow Good Nutrition. Unlike day shift nurses, you may not have options to eat at nearby restaurants or the hospital cafeteria. Avoid visiting vending machines when it’s time for your meal break by starting your shift with a meal of complex carbs and good protein. Pack your own food and include healthy, energizing foods that will keep you going. Avoid too much caffeine intake, otherwise you may find it harder to fall asleep when it’s bedtime. Drink plenty of water and keep yourself hydrated. Finally, according to the Sleep Foundation, it is better to sit down to eat and truly relax, rather than eating on the go or while sitting in front of a computer.
4. Stay Active During Breaks. Although night shifts can be a slower time for nurses, it is important to stay active and moving in order to keep you brain alert. Moderate exercise can help get your blood circulating and keep sleepiness at bay, while also making it easier to fall asleep when you do get home. Try taking a brisk walk, walking up and down the stairs, or even do jumping jacks in the break room. It’s also vital to keep your mind active, in addition to your body. Consider chatting with co-workers, learning a new skill like crochet, or listening to podcasts. Your own health and your patients will benefit from your ability to maintain energy and alertness throughout your night shift.
Tackle the Twilight Zone.
Although getting through a night shit can sometimes feel like an eternity, you can make the best of it using these proactive strategies. In fact, many travel nurses love working the night shift, as it is often quieter and less “political” because management executives typically work during the day. Preparation is key to ease your transition and help you achieve a happier and healthier work/life balance.