In many hospitals and long-term care facilities, newly hired nurses are asked to work the night shift. While a few true night owls prefer this schedule, working the night shift is challenging for most nurses. You might, for example, find yourself spending a chunk of your time off recovering from your time on. But there are ways you can work the night shift and stay healthy—and caring for your own health will help you care more effectively for others. Try our 12 tips.
1. Cluster night shifts together.
It’s helpful to cluster night shifts together and stick to a night shift sleep schedule even on your off days. That way, your body can get used to one schedule and is not always in adaptation mode. One study found that nurses who worked rotations of night shifts followed by day shifts reported lower job satisfaction, reduced quality and quantity of sleep, and more frequent fatigue, as well as psychological and cardiovascular symptoms.1
However, this may not be practical for everyone. If you want to return to a more normal schedule after your last night shift of the week, try going to sleep in the morning—but get up in the early afternoon and stay active until a more normal bedtime. Take power naps during the next couple days. Then on your last free evening, stay up as late as possible, sleep in, and maybe even take a long nap before your first night shift.2
2. Stick to a routine.
Consider using a time-management strategy to create a schedule for other aspects of your daily life. You can plan out the best time for self-care activities like exercising, yoga, meditation, and napping, as well as household tasks such as cooking and cleaning.
3. Get your household on board.
Enlist your family members/housemates in supporting your schedule. Post your work and sleep schedule on the refrigerator so they can see when you’ll be working, asleep, and awake. Try to find a daily meal you can share with family members so you stay connected even during the days you work.3
4. Practice good sleep hygiene.
Practice good sleep hygiene by keeping a regular sleep schedule and creating an environment that is conducive to sleep. This can help you avoid shift work sleep disorder, a common circadian rhythm problem that can cause both insomnia and excessive sleepiness in those who work the night shift.45 Since light exposure disrupts sleep, you should avoid light as much as possible when sleeping during the day. Using blackout curtains, wearing an eye mask, running a white noise machine or app, and avoiding the use of electronic devices before bed can help ensure you get restful sleep.6
If your bedroom isn’t ideal, consider any dark room away from high-traffic parts of the house—even a large walk-in closet or a bed tent.7 If you must wake in the dark, consider purchasing a wake-up light, which gradually increases the light in the room before the alarm goes off.
5. Prioritize sleep.
It almost goes without saying, except that it’s so important: You need to prioritize sleep so you can keep your body healthy and your mind sharp when you are treating patients.
Although it may be tempting to occasionally join friends for lunch to keep up with your social life, it’s important to consider how straying away from your sleep schedule can impact your health. Chronic loss of sleep has serious health implications for health, productivity, and safety.8 Experts recommend 7–9 hours of sleep per night for adults 18–64 years old.9
6. Use caffeine wisely.
Most of us rely on a certain amount of caffeine to wake up and stay productive. Caffeine can improve memory, mood, and physical performance. Whether your drug of choice is coffee, black tea, or dark chocolate, it’s fine to consume it—as long as you stop before you become jittery and strung out.
For that reason, consider avoiding energy drinks that are high in sugar and caffeine. While these will give you a temporary boost, studies show an association with negative health effects, including elevated stress levels, higher blood pressure, increased risk of obesity, and poor-quality sleep. Of course, be mindful of how close to your bedtime you consume caffeine.
7. Eat healthy.
Since shift work has been linked to an increased risk of metabolic problems, it’s important to eat healthy. Prepping your meals and snacks ahead can not only save you time and money—it also gives you more control over what you eat. The ideal lunch includes some protein, along with greens or other vegetables. For snacks, instead of sugary items that will give you a short-term boost followed by a crash, go for healthier choices like whole fruit, trail mix, or a high-protein energy bar. It’s a good idea to eat smaller, more frequent meals to keep your energy steady all day. Night shift workers should also consider supplementing with vitamin D, as reduced sun exposure can lead to deficiency.10
8. Stay hydrated.
Coupled with eating healthy, staying hydrated will help keep you energized and alert. Avoid sugary sodas and fruit juices, which will make your blood sugar spike and then crash. Drinking enough water helps to regulate body temperature, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to cells, and keep organs functioning properly.11 Experts recommend about 11 cups (88 oz.) of water per day for the average woman and 16 cups (128 oz.) for the average man.
9. Nap effectively.
Taking well-timed naps during a shift can help night workers increase alertness and reduce the risk of making errors.12 One study recommended that all nurses working between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. should nap in a private, dark, quiet, and cool room for 20–30 minutes. If your employer doesn’t already have a policy in place that supports napping, consider talking to management about adopting one.
Since working the night shift may increase your risk for heart disease and other conditions, it’s important to adopt a consistent exercise routine. A well-rounded exercise program that includes cardio, strength, and flexibility training can reduce your risk of developing heart disease and other chronic health conditions, help you maintain a healthy weight, and improve your mood and cognitive functioning.13 Exercising too close to bedtime may make it difficult for some people to fall asleep, so consider working out before your shift rather than after.
11. Limit stress.
Working the night shift can have an adverse psychological impact on nurses, so it’s important to actively focus on your mental health. Consider adopting self-care practices—such as meditating or journaling—that will allow you time to self-reflect, reconnect with yourself, and better understand how you’re feeling. Proactively working to think more positively and engaging in activities that make you laugh can help relieve stress.
12. Get in the right mindset.
Upon waking (even if that’s in the evening), it’s good to have a nourishing routine that gets you into a positive frame of mind. That can include meditation, writing in a dream journal, working out, yoga, or whatever helps you feel centered and ready to take on your shift.
At first, adjusting to night shift work can be challenging. Finding a mentor, co-worker, or friend who can offer advice or will simply listen to your concerns can be invaluable. It might also help you to develop your own philosophy of nursing, so you can fall back on this in tough times. If you need advice on managing any persistent psychological or physical symptoms, it’s important to seek out professional help.
Now that you’re set up for success, you can meet challenging situations with grace and enjoy the human connections you make throughout your shift.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), and Post-Graduate Nursing Certificates designed for working nurses. Our degrees are offered online, with optional on-campus immersions* and an annual interprofessional trip abroad. Role specialties include Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Nurse Educator,** and Nurse Executive. The MSN has several options to accelerate your time to degree completion. Complete coursework when and where you want—and earn your advanced nursing degree while keeping your work and life in balance.
*The FNP role specialty includes two required hands-on clinical intensives as part of the curriculum.
**The Nurse Educator role specialty is not available for the DNP program.
- Paola Ferri et al., “The impact of shift work on the psychological and physical health of nurses in a general hospital: a comparison between rotating night shifts and day shifts, Risk Management and Healthcare Policy, Sept. 14, 2016: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5028173/
- Megan Krischke, “5 Easy Ways to Prepare for Night-Shift Nursing,” Onward Healthcare: https://www.onwardhealthcare.com/nursing-resources/5-ways-to-prepare-for-night-shift-nursing/
- Cleveland Clinic, “How You Can Sleep Better If You Work the Night Shift,” Dec. 10, 2014: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-you-can-sleep-better-if-you-work-the-night-shift/
- Cleveland Clinic, “Shift Work Sleep Disorder,” last reviewed April 22, 2017: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12146-shift-work-sleep-disorder
- Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, “Night-shift Work and Light-at-Night,” updated 2019: https://www.bcpp.org/resource/night-shift-work-light-at-night/
- Krischke, “5 Easy Ways.”
- The National Sleep Foundation, “Shift Work Disorder Symptoms,” https://www.sleepfoundation.org/shift-work-disorder/what-shift-work-disorder/shift-work-disorder-symptoms#
- The National Sleep Foundation, “How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?”: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need
- Luca Copetta et al., “Are Shiftwork and Indoor Work Related to D3 Vitamin Deficiency? A Systematic Review of Current Evidences,” Journal of Environmental and Public Health, Sept. 10, 2018: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6151365/
- Harvard School of Public Health, “The Importance of Hydration”: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/the-importance-of-hydration/
- Jeanne Geiger Brown et al. “Napping on the Night Shift: A Two-Hospital Implementation Project,” American Journal of Nursing, May 1, 2016: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4889223/
- Harvard Health Publishing, “The secret to better health—exercise,” Harvard Medical School: https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-secret-to-better-health-exercise