Top Tips for Coping with Night Shifts

So this is a blog post I have wanted to write for some time and thankfully the moment has arrived! I hope you find it of some interest/use. The tips and strategies that follow with respect to coping with night work are a combination of my thoughts and tips gathered from members of the Veterinary ECC Small Talk community via email – THANKS so much to those who contributed. Right, let’s get on with it…

DISCLAIMER: Before we do, I should say that I totally realise that this all sounds a bit idealistic and I am the first to admit that during my ECC career I have not always used these strategies, certainly not all of them all of the time. And moreover we are not all the same and some people find that strategies that work great for some people do not work for them, and vice versa. Obviously you need to do what works best for you…but also please take a moment and think about your routine – are you sure it can’t be improved upon?

1) Be prepared:

When approaching a run of night shifts, try to prepare by building up a sleep reserve; this can be helped for example by doing some physical activity beforehand then you could, e.g.

  • Stay up really late (at least 3am – 6am) the night before then sleep for the majority of the day before your first nightshift.
  • Or, go to bed as usual the night before, sleep in until late morning, have a big feed for lunch then go back to sleep for an afternoon nap.

2) Drink plenty of water during your shifts:

This is one that came up a lot in the feedback. It is not always easy but oh so important to stay hydrated. For example have a big water bottle that is well placed and easily accessible so having a drink does not seem really time consuming! I am willing to budge on some of the other tips in this blog but not this one! Drinking enough water is important people!

3) Plan your caffeine and go easy:

This is another one that came up a fair bit. Overall the take-home message seems to be to go easy on the caffeine. Firstly it can contribute to dehydration and if you are not consuming enough water as well, this becomes a desiccating vicious circle! Secondly if you have caffeine in the later stages of your shift  this can reduce your chances of sleeping when you do get to bed…and so you are more tired….and so you drink more caffeine etc etc.! How about a coffee when you wake up, when you get to work and maybe mid-way through the shift then stop? Make it good coffee and make some for the whole team – obviously! Seriously, if you stay hydrated, get enough rest in the day and do some exercise, you should not need to be caning the super-strength coffee/energy drinks relentlessly!

4) EAT!

We have all been there, trust me, when **** is hitting the fan and even getting water seems out of the question, so who the hell has time to eat right? Uh, wrong! ‘Eat while typing notes’ seemed to come up a fair bit. It’s important and very much helped by being prepared. Junk food is oh so easy and accessible but so not the answer! Before your run of night shifts, get your ‘proper’ healthy food organised, including meals that can easily be re-heated or eaten cold. I am no nutritionist and I am not about to start recommending what you should be eating but go easy on the sugary junk high in ‘bad’ fats!

5) If you get a break, use it!

I am not going to get into the legalities etc. of this but in theory everyone is entitled to some sort of break during a night shift. If you are able to take one, use it. Some people like to have a power nap (I love them!), others like to take a walk, or have some distraction (e.g. TV). Working non-stop without a break can actually make you less and less efficient – it is a bit of a false economy sometimes to just keep ‘powering through’ and taking a short break can bring you back firing on all cylinders again.

6) When it comes to going home time, if you feel too tired to drive, please don’t!

We have all heard stories of people who have driven home falling asleep at the wheel, sometimes nearly having an accident with potentially disastrous consequences. In fact some of you may have had or know people who have had accidents. I know this sounds like a sermon but driving when you are too tired to do so safely is not big and it is not clever! Can you get a taxi? Can someone come to collect you? Can someone drop you home? Indeed, is there somewhere you can sleep at work?

7) Have some ‘breakfast’ before bed:

Opinions and preferences vary here in terms of what people like to eat. For some it is normal breakfast food, for others it is more the sorts of food you might usually eat in the evening. BUT the bottom line is again, try and stay on the healthy side, don’t eat foods and especially large amounts which will interfere with you falling asleep. No curry and beer in the morning! And many people like something that is quick and easy and does not delay sleep for too long.

8) When you do get to bed, take steps to ensure that you can sleep well, fall into refreshing deep sleep:

As far as possible, keep interruptions to a minimum from family – including the furry kind! Get uber curtains that keep as much light out as possible; or use some other means of covering the windows, e.g. black out blinds; or get an eye patch. Unless absolutely necessary, get rid of all devices such as mobile phones or tablets from your room; they can be such an intrusion on sleep! And if needs be, get some ear plugs for noise cancellation.

9) Go easy/stay off the alcohol:

Yes it can relax you after a crazy shift – tick. Yes it can help you to get to sleep – tick. But it can also stop you from getting quality sleep and therefore exacerbate tiredness. Have one drink before bed if you must, but stop there!

10) Exercise:

This is something else that came up a lot in the feedback, the importance of trying to fit in some exercise. Some people like to do this at the end of a shift to help unwind and help with sleeping; others like to do it when they wake up to invigorate before going to work. It does not have to be for very long and it does not have to be super-hardcore. Just do some physical activity in-between shifts!

11) Try to keep the days free for sleeping:

I know this one can be a real challenge especially for parents where kids need taking care of (!) but as far as possible don’t make ‘unnecessary’ commitments for the days when you are working nights. Can those things wait until your nights shifts are over before the next stint?

And look seriously if you really find night work too much, too exhausting, too debilitating…think seriously about whether it is for you. Depression is more common than we care to admit and this sort of work can be a factor in either causing or at least exacerbating that. If you are worried or struggling, get some help; there are plenty of places not least your doctor.

Okay, well that’s it from me. If any of you have any other tips or coping strategies or don’t agree with some of what I have said, I would love to hear from you so get in touch!

PS. I decided not to talk about transitioning to day shifts again – the so-called ‘turnaround’ – as the blog is already quite long. There are different ways of turning around and do feel free to share comments about that too.

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