Even if you consider yourself a night owl and love penalty rates, working the graveyard shift has some disadvantages, including potentially negatively impacting on your physical and mental health.
In this article, we’ll cover four of the main night shift nursing health risks, plus ways to mitigate them.
Firstly let's look at how significant the risk of working night shifts is.
Is Working the Night Shift Dangerous?
In a nutshell, potentially yes. It is widely accepted that people who regularly work at night have poorer health outcomes than the rest of the population. A team of international researchers who followed 75,000 female registered nurses in the United States for 22 years found that 11% of those who had worked night shifts for more than six years had a shortened lifespan. Risks of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer were also high.
It’s not just long-term effects on health that are the issue. Women who work night shifts are also more likely to suffer from miscarriages and all night shift workers are more likely to be involved in accidents.
Let’s look at why working at night poses health risks.
Why Does Night Shift Work Cause Health Problems?
Humans are not nocturnal. We are designed to sleep at night and be awake during the day, so staying up all night knocks us out of our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm is basically our 24-hour body clock. It tells us when it’s time to go to sleep and wake up. It also regulates our appetite, hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, brain activity and body temperature. When we move around, eat, and sleep when our bodies are not supposed to, the clock gets confused and all our signals about what to do when, get out of whack.
So now let’s look at the main health problems that night shift nurses experience.
Top 4 Night Shift Nursing Health Risks to Look Out For
There are many night shift nursing health risks. It’s also a topic where researchers are constantly learning new information, such as the changes night shift work can make at a genetic level. Here are the top four health risks to watch out for.
Chronic sleep deprivation
Noise, daylight and room temperature can make it difficult to sleep during the day, especially in warmer climates such as Australia. On average night shift workers get two or three hours less sleep than other workers, so are more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep causes a whole range of health problems including an increased risk of epilepsy for people who are predisposed and a higher risk of motor vehicle and work accidents.
Weight gain and obesity
Many things go wrong with our appetite and metabolism when we work at night. Nurses who don’t get enough sleep, eat more calories, experience more cravings for calorie-dense foods, have a lower resting metabolism rate and are less likely to exercise. In fact researchers who followed approximately 60,000 non-obese nurses for 16 years found that nurses who slept five or less hours a night were 15% more likely to be obese at the end of the study than those who got at least seven hours of sleep.
Messing with your body’s circadian rhythm can cause insulin resistance and lead to diabetes or pre-diabetes because eating late at night doesn’t give your insulin receptors time to rest.
Sleep deprivation, the effects that night shift work can have on your relationships and the disturbance to your body clock can all lead to depression.
So this all sounds very serious, and it is, however if you’re a nurse who has limited choice other than to work regular night shifts, there are some things that you can do to mitigate these health risks.
How to Adapt to Night Shifts
It may take some experimentation to find out what works best for you, but these are some general tips to help nurses adapt to the graveyard shift. As working overnight has such a negative impact on health, you need to be single-minded about helping your body get the nutrients, rest and movement that it needs.
Stick to a routine
If night shifts prevent your body from following the natural rhythm of sleeping at night and being awake in the day, tell it what to expect when by keeping a routine.
Night shift work is hard enough without having to worry about what’s for dinner each day. Cook a few large meals in advance, portion them and put them in the freezer or refrigerator to ensure you have healthy meals on hand.
Put exercise into your routine and make it non-negotiable, for example by arranging to meet a friend at the gym or making it a rule that you don’t have a shower until you’ve been for a run.
Learn what to avoid
For example, no coffee after 3am. No dipping into that bag of lollies or chips that someone else brought in to work. Minimise exposure to daylight when you need to sleep, for example by wearing sunglasses on your way home from a shift.
We are mostly made up of water and getting enough is key to good health, maintaining a healthy weight and removing waste products from the body. If you don’t love plain water, add in fruit for extra flavour and include drinks without caffeine such as Rooibos tea.
Naps in the afternoon before you start your shift can really help you get enough sleep.
Seek support when you need it
Your doctor or pharmacist can prescribe medication or suggest over-the-counter products to help with sleeplessness. Shift workers also need closer monitoring because of their increased health risks, so schedule in regular check-ups and see your doctor as soon as you can if you’re noticing any problems.
Next we’ll look at what nurses can have on hand to help them sleep.
Night Shift Nurse Self Care Tips
Here is a list of things to help you sleep during the day. Use it as a checklist before you start a rotation of night shifts.
Heat pack to help you feel snug and warm in winter
Do not disturb sign for your front door
Sleep meditation or white noise soundtrack (you can find many on YouTube)
Staying Healthy While Working Night Shifts
Hospitals are generally open 24/7 and some patients require around-the-clock care so the need for night shifts will never go away. As researchers continue to investigate ways to mitigate health risks, night shift workers can minimise the risks to their bodies by following the tips above and by always making their health a priority.
For nurses who want more control over the shifts they work, there are also options which don’t involve inflexible rosters.
A Flexible Work Option For Nurses
If you are tired of not being able to control your work hours, uPaged is a great option for nurses to accept shifts that suit them and turn down others. It’s an online platform that connects nurses with hospitals looking to fill shifts.
With uPaged, nurses build a professional profile so hospitals can see their qualifications, experience and reviews. uPaged charges low fees for hospitals to use the service, meaning it’s less likely that your shift will be cancelled. You can see all the details before you accept the placement, including whether the hospital has cancelled any uPaged shifts within four hours of the start time.
uPaged is a flexible way to pick up extra work or return to the workplace after a period of leave. Best of all, uPaged allows nurses to choose when and where they want to work, so you won’t have to do night shifts when you don’t want to. Sign up to uPaged today to get started with shifts that suit your schedule.