Getting quality sleep as a nurse, especially if you work night shift, can feel impossible. Nurses often work in high-stress environments requiring critical thinking and the ability to respond immediately. Sleep is vital to the physical and mental health of healthcare workers, especially nurses who work shift work. Working long hours can cause sleep deprivation and lead to nurse burnout.
Finding ways to recover between shifts and maintain healthy sleep habits takes discipline and effort, but is necessary for your overall health and job performance.
12 Hour Shifts and Sleep Health
Hospital nurses, especially those who work in primarily acute care hospitals, tend to work long 12-hour shifts. Some nurses may even work rotating shifts, which is common in healthcare settings and can be detrimental to sleep health. Figuring out a healthy sleep schedule is a constant balance when working 12-hour shifts. Nurses often report quality of sleep as poor and describe sleep duration as much lower than the recommended amount. This can lead to decreased immune responses and affect health and wellness.
Health care managers can support nurses' sleep by offering schedule patterns that are conducive to better sleep and work-life balance. Many nurses prefer to work their shifts in a row so that they remain on the same sleeping schedule for a few days, while others prefer to break their days apart, especially if they have young children who may affect their sleep.
Nurses' sleep duration can have a direct impact on patient safety and patient care quality. Hospital systems can create a better patient safety culture by educating nurses on the importance of quality sleep and discussing how to create a healthy work-sleep life balance.
A well rested nurse is able to take care of themselves and their patients with a clear mind.
The Circadian Effects of Working Night Shifts
Our circadian system is a biological process that works in 24 hours blocks, mainly affected by light and darkness signaling the body when to be awake and when to be asleep.
Working night shift can be incredibly disruptive to circadian rhythms and lead to insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Effects of disrupted circadian rhythm include fatigue, sleep disorders, mood issues, poor reflexes, decreased cognitive abilities, poor decision making, and a decreased immune system. Circadian rhythms even affect hormones and chemical receptors responsible for temperature, appetite, and digestion. This can lead to stress, health issues, cold intolerance, accidents, and trouble concentrating.
Most healthcare settings require 24-hour care, so there will always be people required to work overnight. Nurses who need to work shift work should be educated on the circadian effects of working nights and how to minimize any negative impacts. Hospital systems can create a better patient safety culture by educating nurses on the importance of quality sleep and discussing how to create a healthy work-sleep life balance.
Don't Neglect Sleep Quality
Sleep deprivation can lead to increased risk for multiple health conditions such as insulin resistance or diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, stroke, depression, for cancer, obesity, and increased mortality. Quality sleep is a powerful tool in preventing risk of these health conditions.
Prioritizing sleep directly affects health in positive ways such as improved cognitive function, mood, and productivity.
Do not neglect the quality and amount of sleep you get. Use the tools included in this article to help you get better rest.
Many times we think forgoing sleep won’t affect us, but research shows that adequate sleep is vital to physical and mental health, quality of life and safety.
There is no right or wrong sleep schedule. Experiment with different schedules and find what works best for you. Keep adjusting until you find something that gives you the right amount of rest to help you feel refreshed and ready to take on your shift.
Applying these suggestions and adjusting your sleep habits will have you on your way to better sleep and more energy in no time.
7 Ways Nurses Can Get Better Sleep
1. Have a sleep ritual
Create a sleep-wake schedule that works best for you. A sleep ritual means you do the exact same actions right before you go to sleep each time in order to create healthy sleep routines. This doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as changing your clothes, brushing your teeth, and getting into bed. Or if you require a little more to unwind, you may want to take a relaxing hot bath or shower, get into comfortable pajamas, spend some time meditating, or playing soothing music before you drift off to sleep.
Figure out what works best for you, but try to stay consistent so that your mind and body knows that it is time to unwind and go to sleep.
2. Set a time to sleep
Try to be consistent about what time you go to sleep whether you work day or night shift. Many shift workers end up sleep deprived, working long hours and getting little amounts of sleep.
Aim for a bedtime within one hour from arriving home from a night shift or set an early bedtime if you are working days. This can ensure you get an adequate amount of sleep before your next shift. You are doing yourself and your patients a disservice if you are exhausted.
3. Create a comfortable sleeping environment
Set your sleeping space up to be conducive for a restful sleep. Night shift nurses should consider using black-out curtains to block any light from coming in. Some nurses may prefer to use a sleep mask as well. Keep your room at a temperature that is comfortable for you, keeping in mind that cooler rooms allow for better sleep. Consider using a sound machine or ear plugs to block out any outside noise. Using a weighted blanket has calming effects and can put you in a more relaxed state to sleep.
Think about what works best for you and have these tools for a comfortable sleeping environment set up ahead of time.
4. Limit screen time
It can be very tempting to get into bed and start scrolling on your phone or catch up on your favorite show. Don’t do this, as the light from your screen can affect your biorhythm. Even the smallest amount of light can promote wakefulness. It is recommended to eliminate screen time an hour prior to bedtime. Help your sleep quality and put the phone away!
5. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine
Resist the temptation to use substances prior to sleep. Alcohol doesn’t give you a good night’s sleep. It can actually decrease the quality of sleep by disrupting your circadian rhythms and affecting your REM sleep. Even worse, it can give you nightmares! Though it may help you fall asleep, it’s actually quite disruptive to your sleep cycle. Sleep experts advise against drinking alcohol before bedtime.
Nicotine and caffeine have never been proven to help people sleep well. Many nurses rely on a mid-shift pick-me-up whether they work days or nights. Try to limit caffeine intake to earlier in the day or earlier in your shift if you work nights. Caffeine is a stimulant and isn’t what you need before trying to get a restful sleep.
6. Do not disturb
Being distracted by constant disruptions via text, phone call, or social media can be very disruptive. Night shift nurses may need to constantly remind friends and family not to bother them during the day in order to prevent sleep deprivation. You wouldn’t call them at 3:00 am, would you? Consider turning off the ringer on your phone or putting it on the “do not disturb setting” so that you can get your much needed sleep.
7. Try to leave your worries at work
There’s no denying that nurse life can be a stressful one. Patient care is physically and mentally exhausting. It is natural to be concerned about a patient and replay in your mind what you could have done differently. Many nurses report waking up in the middle of sleep because they have dreamt they forgot to give medication or they are performing an emergency procedure. It is very easy to get alarm fatigue and to hear cardiorespiratory monitors in your sleep as well. If you become too stressed to sleep, try this: envision opening a vault in your mind and putting your worries away. Lock them up for the time being and deal with them tomorrow. There are also mindfulness apps that you can use to ease your mind in hopes of quality sleep.
How can I survive working the night shift without falling asleep?
Keep your workplace well lit to try to offset your body’s clock signaling its time to sleep. Move around as much as you can, as sitting for long periods can make you drowsy. Consider playing music or listening to a podcast to keep your brain stimulated. Talk to coworkers when you feel sleepy, the conversation will help you stay alert and awake. Drink water often and eat small meals. If necessary, have someone look after your patients and take a 20 minute “powernap” during your break to help you feel refreshed and be able to complete your shift.
Lauren Rivera is a nationally certified neonatal intensive care nurse with over 15 years of experience. She serves as a nurse expert offering support and educational classes for women and their families from preconception through childhood. Lauren is also a freelance writer with works published on several nursing sites. She develops and curates content for various healthcare companies, and writes continuing education modules for other healthcare professionals.
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