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Working the Overnight Shift: Staying Healthy When You’re Up All Night


It’s no secret that patients in healthcare facilities need care around the clock. As a nurse or care provider, you’ve probably been asked to work the overnight shift, but getting back to your normal routine afterwards can be a struggle, especially if you have young children or other concerns that need your attention. Additionally, working nontraditional hours can affect your overall mental and physical health.

If you’re starting to feel like a vampire after working the overnight shift, there are some things you should know about how it can affect your mental and physical health.

How Working Overnight Affects Your Health

Working around the clock can lead to what’s known as work shift disorder. According to the Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit organization that’s committed to healthy sleeping habits, long-term night shift work is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, as well as metabolic problems, heart disease, ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, and obesity.

Work shift disorder can also lead to the following:

  • Problems Sleeping

Many of these issues can be traced back to a lack of sleep. You may have trouble getting 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night when you’re going to bed when the sun comes up. When you’re up all night, all that extra light exposure can suppress melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.

  • Feeling Out of Step with Your Surroundings

Working the late shift can also make you feel as if you’re living in an alternate reality. You may feel out of sync with what’s going on around you. You may have trouble comprehending new information or completing routine tasks. You may also notice a change in your behavior.

  • Mental Health

Shift work disorder can also lead to depression and anxiety. A lack of sleep can disrupt the circadian system, which regulates the release of different chemicals in the body. You may feel isolated from friends and family members who wake up and go to bed at normal hours.

  • Poor Workplace Safety and Performance

Working late at night can also make you less effective on the job. You may feel less alert or experience a delayed reaction when responding to the needs of your patients. Sleepiness leads to slower reactions and interferes with decision making, which increases your chances of making a mistake. You may overlook important safety considerations, which could put you, your colleagues, or your patients at risk.  Workplace injuries can become more common when workers swap shifts or work long hours without sleep.

Staying Healthy on the Overnight Shift

For many healthcare workers, working the day shift just isn’t an option. If you have to work the overnight shift, use the following tips to improve your performance on the job.

  • Stay Vigilant

Everyone working the night shift should familiarize themselves with the risks involved. Shift work disorder symptoms include excessive sleepiness, irritability, depression, insomnia, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Staff members should speak up if they’re starting to suffer from these symptoms, so they get the assistance they need on the floor. If you notice one of your colleagues is having trouble staying awake on the job, make sure they have everything they need to complete the task at hand without putting themselves or their patients at risk.

  • Tips for Staying Awake on the Job

If you’re having trouble staying awake, try taking a walk before your shift to get the blood pumping. Try to get your sleep where you can. Try taking a nap before your shift or even during breaks. Napping an extra 15 – 20 minutes can improve alertness.

Caffeine is usually the go-to choice on the job, but if coffee isn’t doing it for you anymore, try to stay active, so you don’t start to fall asleep on the job. Remember to stay hydrated when consuming caffeine at work.

  • Use Public Transportation

Driving before or after the overnight shift can lead to accidents and unsafe driving. Do yourself a favor and take public transit whenever possible to stay safe during your commute. Make sure your colleagues aren’t driving while drowsy. You can also carpool with your colleagues, so someone can take a nap in the back. You can also double check each other’s driving to prevent an accident.

  • Spread Out Your Night Shifts

If you have some control over your schedule, try to break up your night shifts, so you’re not up all night for weeks at a time. This will help you balance out your sleep schedule.

  • Exercise

Try to hit the gym before or after your shifts to relieve stress. You’ll sleep more soundly when it’s time to go to bed. This also gives you a chance to experience more daylight, instead of just waking up and going to bed in darkness.

  • Relying on Family and Friends

If you’re having trouble keeping up with all of life’s responsibilities, don’t be afraid to lean on your loved ones. Delegate certain tasks to others, so you don’t run yourself down during the week.

  • Sleeping Tips

When you’re ready for bed, try to block out the light as much as possible with blackout curtains. Turn off your phone and computer, so the lights and sounds don’t disrupt your sleep schedule. Our eyes register blue light as daylight, so it’s telling your body it’s still light outside. You can also adjust the settings on your devices so they emit a warm, orange light instead of a blue one.

Working the overnight shift may be the vain of your existence, but these tips can help you make the most of a difficult situation. If you’re not built for the late shift, talk to your supervisor or manager about switching shifts.

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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