Secrets to Staying Safe and Sane on the Night Shift

by Ctd 2005, via Flickr Creative Commons

Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, interim editor-in-chief

I recently sent my sister Jean, who works as a night nurse, an article called “Six Ways to Make Working the Night Shift Less Hazardous to Your Health.” The article noted recent research suggesting that shift work could increase your risk of everything from depression to obesity to cardiovascular disease. It also made a few simple suggestions: be consistent, nap before you work, don’t use caffeine (!!!), don’t take melatonin, change your lights, and eat a healthful diet. Here’s what my sister had to say about the article:

Yes, I do agree with the article. I am a night nurse and I always feel like I can’t get enough sleep. The days  I am off I tend to sleep too much. I have also suffered from depression and am on Cymbalta. The best way I found to cope is to try to maintain a “night” routine even when I am off. I go to bed at 2 am or 3 am and sleep until 11 am.  I also do not eat a lot on nights. At  work, I try to eat by 9 pm, and then if I am hungry I will have cereal or fruit. The nights I am off, we eat dinner at 7 pm. My house is quiet during the day as my children are older. If it is the weekend I sometimes wear ear plugs. I keep my bedroom dark. I sometimes take an Ambien to sleep if I work back to back. I do believe it takes a serious toll on my health and sometimes I think about going to days, but I feel the stress would be about 10 times worse.  I’d rather work in a more quiet and peaceful environment. I am 54, so hopefully I can retire in six years.

Thanks, Jean, for letting me quote you in this post. It makes me wonder: Do other night nurses feel this way? What does motivate someone to work full-time when the rest of the world is sleeping? Does it take a unique personality? Do you have a secret that might help others?

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2016-11-21T13:20:41+00:00 December 9th, 2009|nursing perspective|3 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Mary Jo Wright December 18, 2009 at 2:08 am

    I am 54 y/o, a nurse for 33 years and have worked 12hr night shifts for 30 of them. I also tend to stay in a night mode even on my days off.
    I eat dinner for my first meal then lunch around 2300 a snack about 0200. I don’t eat just before I go to bed.
    I like working night shift there is more autonomy on nights in a very small rural hospital. When I have to be up during the day shift my brain doesn’t kick in till about 1200. I can’t see myself going to days unless I am the hospital nurse educator (my dream job). I love to teach. Currently I teach ACLS, BLS, NRP, PALS, STABLE and other inservices as they come up.
    My biggest issue is taking routine meds for hypertension etc. and taking anything BID is hard to figure what time to do what when you have to switch from days to nights.
    I did have had a period of depression, have obesity, hypertension and DM2 in my life.

  2. Janet Elliston December 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    I’ve been in nursing for over 30 years, on nights for 17 of those. I have now been on days for nearly 2 and am comtemplating returning to nights. I feel physicallly better, and mentally sharper on days, yet went from 12 hr. shifts to 8. The increase in communte time, workload, and time from away home is taking it’s toll quickly. I have been pusing for 10 hr. shifts (I’m a case manager) for efficiency and employee satsifaction. Bottom line, no one is listening. I feel few options than to return to nights…As an experience night worker, I shifted back into a day routine on my days off (completly opposite a previous post. And I would eat my dinner at work if on the night shift, awake for breakfast and have lunch before beggining my shift.As I have come to accept, their is no one or right way to adjust to being a night worker, take suggestions from those that have done it for years and develop your own routine.(My health was better on nights, I am 55, have gained 10 lbs and have high BP on days!, I honestly think it’s the addition of number of days worked).

  3. Jessica Brodbeck December 16, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Having worked in nursing over 26 years, I recognize that I can no longer work nights. (Did it for about 1/2 of my career.) I teach now full time and have to be up for clinical at 4:30, so 9pm is late for me! I worry about nurses looking for work, or my new grads who have no choice, and often must take night shifts, or worse, rotating. I work in Boston, and all of us rotate. (Fortunately- I do day/eves which is bad enough!) I have to think that straight nights is better then our day/night rotations- often working both shifts in the same week. Re: our permanent night nurses- yes! I think it does take a different personality. I remember feeling like I was always “out of synch” with the rest of the world when I was heading in to work while everyone else was taking off for a night home.

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