This week’s edition of the Traveler’s Guide to Nursing and Allied Health gives tips on working the night shift.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 9 million workers, or approximately 6 percent of the American workforce, are punching in the clock for the night shift. Aside from being unconventional, starting your job when most people are winding down their day can be physically and psychologically challenging. But there are steps healthcare professionals can take to limit the negative impacts and thrive while working an unconventional schedule.
Prioritize and Schedule Sleep
Contrary to wishful thinking, you cannot sleep when you’re dead. Sleeping is vital to living, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Sleeping 7 to 9 hours every night (or day) has numerous health benefits. Proper sleep boosts your immune system and helps prevent weight gain by maintaining your body’s production of leptin, a hormone that tells you you’re full. Sleep keeps your heart healthy. A lack of sleep can increase cortisol production, raising your blood pressure. Proper sleep also improves memory, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time, all important qualities for healthcare professionals who literally have their patient’s life in their hands.
Aim to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Refrain from drinking alcohol and smoking close to your bedtime. Nicotine is a stimulant, and though alcohol has a sedative effect, it can negatively impact REM sleep. Be sure to create a sleep-friendly environment by reducing noise and making the room dark.
Melatonin, the hormone which regulates sleep-wake cycles and makes us sleepy, kicks in after the onset of darkness and peaks between 2 and 4 a.m. When you’re working the night shift, you’re battling your internal clock. While artificial light will help keep you awake when you’re on the job, artificial and natural light will inhibit your ability to sleep once you get home. Avoid bright lighting and blue light from electronic devices before going to bed. Blue light has been shown to suppress melatonin longer than other light. Use shades, curtains, or other devices to block out the light in your bedroom and keep it dark while you are sleeping during the day.
The benefits of exercise are well documented. Not only will exercise improve your overall health, but it will also help you sleep better too. Studies have shown that exercise can help you fall asleep quicker and improve sleep quality, according to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D. medical director for John Hopkins Center for Sleep. Adults are recommended to engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and two days of strength training per week.
Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, soda, tea, and energy drinks. Caffeine increases alertness, boosts energy, and improves focus and concentration. Effects take five to 30 minutes to kick in and peak 45 minutes after consumption. But caffeine also can cause insomnia, headaches, dehydration, and high blood pressure. While a cup of coffee “energizes” you, it can cause gastrointestinal upsets and muscle shakes. Most people consume a large amount of caffeine at the start of their day. But studies show that smaller amounts throughout the day help drinkers maintain their energy level and avoid crashing. Try to cut caffeine intake six hours before you plan on sleeping.
Night shift workers are more likely to gain weight than their day shift counterparts, according to the study “Night shift work, short sleep and obesity” published in the National Library of Medicine. Counteract these odds by sticking to an eating schedule and eating healthy foods. Smaller portions will help you avoid feeling drowsy after eating. Also, eat easily digestible foods such as vegetables, rice, pasta, and fruit. Avoid sugary, fried, spicy, and high-fat foods. Snack on fruits and veggies and drink plenty of water.
Step outside during a break and take in some fresh air. Joseph G. Allen, an assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says air quality can affect your on-the-job performance. Plus, as your lungs take in more fresh air, oxygen levels in the blood go up, circulating more to the brain, energizing you, and improving your ability to concentrate. Increased oxygen will also slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure.
Napping can reduce fatigue, increase alertness, and improve your mood and your performance. But there are dos and don’ts to napping. Keep naps short, no more than 20 minutes long. And give yourself a few minutes to wake up after a nap before you return to work.
Some people are early birds, and others are night owls, but if you’re working a night shift, be sure to take extra care to ensure you stay healthy and alert. Consistency is key. Set boundaries with family and friends to abide by your schedule but still socialize. Staying in touch with the ones we love is important to our emotional and psychological health. And make time for activities such as working out, meditation, walking, drawing, gardening, etc., which will help you destress from a hectic shift.
For additional recommendations, check out the CDC’s tips for night shift work.
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