With our impressively detailed color vision (for a mammal), and our not-so-great night vision, humans are really best suited to a diurnal lifestyle. And indeed, for most of recorded and archaeologically attested human history, the vast majority of people have been active during the day, and slept during the night.
But the necessities of modern life aren’t always conducive to what’s most biologically natural for us. Sickness and injury don’t abide by civilized office hours, and people get hurt or fall ill at any time of the day or night. It’s necessary that medical professionals are available at all hours, and so many doctors and nurses find themselves working night shifts at least occasionally.
Night shifts can be hard on you, but it’s especially difficult if your shifts aren’t consistent. Working night shifts as a nurse leaves you facing many challenges, especially those of a chronobiological nature. Shift Work Disorder is a very real possibility for nurses who work both day shifts and night shifts. These tips can help you make night shifts work for you, in as much as doing so is possible.
If Possible, Work With Your Employer to Group Night Shifts Together
Working at night isn’t generally ideal, but it’s a sacrifice that must be made in the course of saving lives. But, the real problems arise when you’re flipping back and forth between day shifts and night shifts.
Shift Work Disorder is a well-known and well-attested sleep disorder that arises in individuals who flip between day shifts and night shifts. It’s a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that can be characterized by both insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness.
In people who work night shifts, total daily sleep time is usually shortened, and the quality of sleep is less satisfactory than in people who work day shifts. You may feel unable to sleep when you have the opportunity to do so during daylight hours, yet you may also find yourself feeling tired and sleepy at work, even to the point of falling asleep on the job.
If you ask a sleep specialist, they’ll tell you that there’s really no such thing as an “ideal” night shift schedule. When you have a non-standard sleep-wake schedule that isn’t aligned with your endogenous circadian predisposition, it will affect the duration and quality of the sleep you do get.
However, there are ways to organize rotating shift work schedules that help mitigate some of the adverse effects of night shift work. Short runs of night work, with time for recovery, are generally better than extended stretches or too much flipping back and forth.
You Can Nap During Your Break — If You Time It Right
Night shift workers can sometimes benefit from a nap during a break, or a nap directly prior to going into work, but it’s very important that you time it correctly. The ideal length for such a nap is about 10-20 minutes. This gives you enough time to progress from stage 1 sleep into stage 2 sleep. In stage 2 sleep, theta activity is observed, with the alpha waves associated with stage 1 sleep becoming interrupted by sleep spindles and k-complexes.
What you don’t want to do is allow yourself to progress all the way into slow-wave sleep, the third stage of NREM sleep. People who are in this sleep stage are harder to wake, and upon awakening, sleep inertia is far more pronounced than after awakening from stage 1 or stage 2 sleep.
Sleep inertia is not only unpleasant, but it impairs your cognition, memory, and decision-making. As a night shift nurse, you need to make important decisions and handle complex situations on the job, so the last thing you want is to feel groggy and slow because the alarm on your phone just ripped you out of deep slow-wave sleep.
This is the idea behind the so-called “power nap” — maximizing the benefits you get from a short duration of sleep, while preventing the sleep inertia that results from awakening during slow wave sleep.