5 Tips for Thriving on Night Shift

Night shift.

It's the taboo phrase on the tongue of every daytime worker. Techs tell tales of darkness that could only have come from the graveyard shift. Nursing students fear it. Sundowners anticipate it like the vagabonds of the West await Burning Man. If you say it out loud, your manager might call you and tell you... "Hi, um, we need you to switch to nights."

Night shift. Is it really that bad? Let me be honest and tell you that I wanted to work during the daytime more than anything. Fast forward a few months from that phone call from my manager, and I am thriving on nights. I'm making more money, I'm bonding with my awesome night crew of coworkers, and I'm appreciating the nighttime workflow. I wanted to share this post with you all to help alleviate the fear of nights by giving you 5 tips for thriving on night shift.

1. Prioritize sleep

Getting an adequate amount of sleep is vital to thriving on night shift. It goes without saying that if you don't sleep, you won't be happy, and you won't be able to do your job effectively. Not only will it affect your job, but it may affect your personal relationships and social life as well. So, take a minute realign your priorities and put yourself and your rest at the top of the list. Schedule yourself a time to sleep that works for you before/after night shifts. It may take a little trial and error to get into a groove, but you will find a pattern of sleep that works for you! I'm going to share with you the way I sleep and what has been working wonderfully for me. You can find my personal sleep schedule at the bottom of this post. This is not an evidence-based recommendation, but it's what allows me to get the recommended 6-8 hours of sleep and helps me stay balanced and happy.

2. Create a caffeine cutoff time

This tip goes hand in hand with prioritizing sleep. The amount of caffeine you drink overnight will affect your sleep the next day. Although throwing back as many Monsters as possible might sound like a good way to get through the night shift, it doesn't come without drawbacks. As I've discussed in other posts, caffeine has a half life of about 6 hours. So, if you drink coffee at 5 AM before your shift ends, 3/4 of the caffeine will be in your system at 8 AM, and half of it will still be in your system at 11 AM. This is why I cut myself off from caffeinated beverages around 2 AM. That way, at 8 AM when I get home to go to sleep, I won't be kept awake by the caffeine that's hanging out in my system. If you're super sensitive to caffeine, you may want to make that cutoff time a bit earlier depending on when your shift ends. That being said, if you're struggling to keep your eyes open before morning med pass, it might be necessary to refuel past that cutoff time.

3. Advocate for your schedule

Keep schedule as regular as possible with as many rest days you can get between your bundle of shifts. If you're flipping between having a social life during the day and working at night every other day of the week, it's going to be hard for your circadian rhythm to regulate itself. I try to schedule my shifts in bundles of 3 as close together as possible with a break of 4 days between shifts. That way, my body is happy with me staying awake for 4 days in a row then staying up 3 nights in a row. I've been lucky enough to have a job that allows for self-scheduling, and my manager is really great with working with our requested schedules. If you are not so fortunate, and your manager keeps scheduling you for sporadic shifts, be sure to advocate for yourself by meeting with them to talk about your schedule. Your rest is vital to your health and to the care of your patients, so it needs to be taken seriously.

4. Take small snack breaks

Even though we all know we need good food to fuel our hardworking bodies, it can be weird to eat a meal at 2 AM. I've found that it makes my stomach act up, and by the morning change of shift, I'm doubled over in stomach cramps. Because of this, I've had a hard time eating full meals in the middle of the night. What works for me is to make sure I have a few snack breaks so that I have some fuel in me to get me through the night. I've found that my digestive system is a bit happier when I have these small snacks compared to one big ol' dinner at the witching hour. It's really easy to throw together a healthy snack pack with a few things you can munch on. I like to bring a piece of fruit, a protein bar, trail mix, and maybe even a piece of dark chocolate (hi, caffeine!) to fulfill that sweet tooth.

5. Stay busy

If you're the kind of person who finds your eyelids involuntarily closing once night time rolls around, you may need to keep yourself busy during your night shift. With the crazy nights I've been having lately, I have not had a problem with this. Sometimes, though, there is a lull in the work and the unit can become very - dare I say it? - quiet. On quiet nights, team up with your techs and help them get patients changed and cleaned. If one coworker is drowning while you have down time, offer to help complete some of their tasks. If there is a lack of patient care to be completed, get to cleaning. Everyone could always appreciate a nice saniwipe party at the nurses' station. Staying busy with tasks is the best way to keep yourself alert during the night shift. It also won't hurt that your coworkers will love you if you're willing to help them with their work.

My sleep schedule: 

For a bit of background, I work 7 PM to 7 AM and 3 shifts per week. I'm going to split this section up into a few different scenarios of how my typical week looks. Let's pretend like I've just enjoyed a long weekend of daytime activities, and now I have to flip to being a night owl for my shifts at the beginning of the week. My schedule for the hypothetical week includes a Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday shift.

Going back to nights after a weekend. 

If I've just spent a few days off work and I'm going to work the next day (i.e. working Sunday night), I try to stay up late on Saturday night, then I would sleep in as long as possible on Sunday morning. If I accidentally wake up around 9 AM on Sunday or have to get up early for some other reason, I go about my day, and then around 2 PM I get into my room, shut the blackout blinds, and nap for a few hours. I wake up around 5 PM to get ready for work, and I'm on my way into the night shift!

Sleeping after a night shift. 

When I get home from work in the morning, around 8 AM, I go right to sleep, sometimes after eating a small meal. I set my alarm for 4:30 PM so that I can get ready for work, have a meal, and see a bit of the daytime before I go back to work. Although I set my alarm for 4:30, sometimes I only sleep until 3. You'll find that your body sometimes just wakes you up at random hours of the day, and it's best to try to go back to sleep if you can. It doesn't always work though. So, if I physically cannot sleep as long as I had planned, I use that time before work to enjoy some daylight by exercising or running errands. Then, I go to work at night and repeat this pattern until the end of my third shift on Wednesday morning.

Sleeping before flipping back to a daytime schedule

On Wednesday morning when I get back from my third night shift in a row, I go right to sleep and try to wake up around 1 or 2 PM. Yes, this is less sleep than usual, but it's still about 5-6 hours, which isn't bad. I get up a bit earlier like this because I need to sleep at night like a normal human in order to flip back into a weekend full of daytime activities. This might not work for some people, but I've found that I am surprisingly rested by 2, and with a cup of coffee, I'm able to enjoy the day then get back to sleep at night. Then, viola, the next morning I wake up with the rest of the world when the sun comes up! Okay, fine. I usually wake up the next morning at like 11 AM, but the next day after that, it's a bit easier to get up early. After spending a few days with my loved ones, I go back to step one and do it all again!

I hope you've all enjoyed this article and that you've found it useful in some way. Feel free to leave your tips for night shift in the comments, and make sure you follow me on my social media accounts to stay connected!