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Everything You Need To Know About Nursing Shift Work

July 15, 2021

One benefit of the nursing profession is the variety of available shifts, which can allow nurses to choose which shift best fits their schedule. Nurses new to the profession may not initially have this flexibility, however, with experience and time, you can apply for opportunities with a shift that fits your work-life balance. In this article, we discuss what nursing shift work is, the different shift types and the advantages of shift work.

Shift work for nurses

The uniqueness of working as a nurse in the hospital or other facilities—such as long-term care—is that the facilities run continuously. Every second, minute and hour someone must be available to care for patients. The nature of a facility dictates the need for a variety of shifts. In these facilities, nurses can work:

  • Mornings
  • Evenings
  • Nights
  • Weekends
  • Swing shifts (second half of the day)
  • On-call (being called in at any time on a scheduled day)

The number of hours per shift that nurses work varies, including:

  • Eight hours
  • Ten hours
  • Twelve hours
  • Sixteen hours

Read more: Day Shift vs. Night Shift for Nurses: Differences and Benefits

Night nursing shifts

Shift work typically refers to working the night shift. Night shift options usually include:

  • First shift: 7:00pm -7:30am
  • Second shift: 8:00pm -8:30am
  • Third/last shift: 11:00pm - 7am

While many nurses choose shift work for reasons such as convenience, the opportunity to make more money or less stress, shift work is often available for new nursing graduates, new hires and transfers.

Shift work can be taxing on the body and health, but working nights provides a unique environment for nurses. Patients typically sleep during the night, and so, working nights can be quieter, allow for more time to catch up with charting and have fewer distractions.

Night shift nursing isn't for everyone, however. At times, it can be difficult because it interrupts the wake/sleep cycle, also known as the “circadian rhythm”. It can also cause increased sleepiness, insomnia and weight gain or loss.

Read more: 15 Tips for Nurses to Survive the Night Shift

Advantages of working the night shift

There are advantages to working the night shift. Since most new nursing graduates who work in hospitals start on the night shift, they often build solid and lasting friendships with fellow nurses. Other advantages of working nights include:

  • Time to refine skills
  • Opportunity for higher pay
  • Slower patient intake
  • Flexible work schedule
  • More time off
  • Fewer patient handoffs

Time to refine skills

Working the night shift is a great way to learn fast and prove your skills, especially as a new nurse. The night shift allows more experienced nurses time to teach and train new nurses. Patients are sleeping, so there is downtime to learn and master skills.

Working nights gives you time to master skills such as:

  • Interpreting lab values
  • Inserting Foley catheters
  • Inserting IVs
  • Observing procedures, you may not have time to watch if you worked the day shift

Related: Nursing Skills: Definitions and Examples

Opportunity for higher pay

Working the night shift can have some incentives such as higher pay in certain locations. The national average salary for nurses is $33.93 per hour. However, in working the night shift, a nurse can make an additional $2 to $3 per hour.

Slower patient intake

By nature, the night shift is slower. It starts to slow down once businesses, outpatient clients and doctor offices close for the day. Depending on which floor you work on, there may be fewer patient transfers and admissions during the night shift. This means less intake as patients start to settle in for the night.

Flexible work schedule

Working the night shift allows you to have more time during the day to spend on personal tasks, such as running errands and spending time with family and friends. If you have a family, working the night shift also gives you the opportunity to spend time with your children during daylight hours. You can drive them to and from school, have meals together, help with homework and be there for bedtime.

More time off

Working nights may offer more time off. For example, with a 12-hour, three times a week schedule, if you work three nights in a row, you may not have to return to work until the following week. Keeping a consistent schedule, whenever possible, allows you to have long stretches of days off.

Fewer patient handoffs

Another advantage of working nights is fewer patient handoffs. Patient handoff is when you are reporting on your patient to another nurse. Fewer patient handoffs can result in fewer mistakes, more time to spend with your patients and more time to look up processes and procedures.

Tips for working nursing night shifts

It's important to keep a healthy work-life balance when working nursing shifts. Your patients benefit when you are healthy and well-rested. No matter what shift you work, being healthy and getting enough sleep will help improve your mood, reduce mistakes and provide better overall health care to your patients.

Maintain healthy sleeping habits

According to the CDC, adults between the ages of 18-60 need seven hours or more of sleep per night. Getting enough sleep is important. It prevents accidents such as car crashes, medication errors and general mistakes. Healthy sleeping habits also help to prevent sleep disorders such as insomnia, narcolepsy or restless leg syndrome (RLS).

Take breaks

Taking breaks throughout the day can be essential to clear your mind and wind down during a busy shift. Stepping away for a few minutes away from a stressful situation decreases your heart rate and helps calm your mind. As a nurse, schedule regular breaks for yourself throughout the day, take time off and take vacations.

Moderate caffeine intake

Caffeine has both health benefits and risks. It provides energy and can be found in coffees, teas, energy drinks and sodas. Some studies show caffeine:

  • Fights against inflammation
  • Prevents Parkinson's disease
  • Possibly preventing strokes

As with anything, drink caffeinated beverages in moderation. Drinking too much caffeine can impact the quality of sleep, cause caffeine withdrawal such as headaches and cause dehydration.

To decrease the amount of caffeine you consume, try drinking caffeine-free coffee, teas and sodas. If you crave carbonation, drinking flavored seltzer water can satisfy the craving. To ensure you are able to get adequate sleep, avoid drinking caffeine before bedtime.

Eat healthy foods

Nutrition is healthy for everyone, but especially nurses. Although eating out or the hospital’s cafeteria may be convenient options, consider packing your own healthy lunch instead. Having nutritious, healthy, balanced meals not only benefits you, but it also benefits your patients. Nutritious meals include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Plant-based meals
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, steel oats, barley and quinoa

Stay active

Staying active has proven health benefits. Research shows 150 minutes a week of exercise has the best health benefits. But it can be challenging to work out or get in exercise, after a long shift. Instead you can use what you already do at work—taking the stairs instead of an elevator when you’re not in a rush to get somewhere or going for a walk during a break—to increase activity. You can also try tracking your steps by wearing a pedometer.

Be cognizant of your health

As a nurse, you need to be aware of your own health as much as you are aware of the health of your patients. Far too many times, nurses take far better care of their patients than themselves. Remember to go for yearly check-ups with your physician. Know your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight. Contact your health care provider as soon as you feel something is not right.

Healthy colleague relationships

Healthy colleague relationships are the key to a successful shift as a nurse. Being a nurse is unique—no one knows what you go through like a colleague. Building relationships with colleagues can also build support, compassion, empathy and teamwork.

Stay hydrated

When you are a nurse, you can run around the hospital for most of your shift. To keep your energy up and to stay healthy, keep yourself hydrated. Here are some tips to stay hydrated:

  • Carry a water bottle
  • Wear a smartwatch that reminds you when to drink
  • Purchase a time marker water bottle to let you know how much water you are drinking throughout the day

Due to the increasing demand for nurses, and a nursing shortage, it’s a good time to find work as a nurse. However, finding a day shift may be difficult if you are a new graduate or transferring from a different floor. There are plenty of advantages to working the night shift, and it could be a way to start working on your desired floor.

Related: How to Overcome Challenges As a Night Shift Nurse


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