As a healthcare professional, although you may choose to work in a 9-5 post, as part of your training you will be expected to work shifts. This may be a rolling roster of the same shift pattern or a random mix of days, nights, short and long shifts. It’s no surprise that shift work can lead to higher burn out, and a whole list of negative health effects. However, I think that shift work can have its benefits (who doesn’t like having 4 days off a week?), and there are things that I have picked up along the way that have really helped me. What works for me may not work for you, but hopefully some of these tips may make those long nights and tired days that little bit easier. So in no particular order, here are a couple of things that might help you survive shift work.
- Try and establish some kind of eating pattern – this seems like an obvious one, but it’s actually really difficult when working night shifts and day shifts in the same week and/or month. Your body gets used to being awake at a certain time and being asleep at a certain time, but when you’re switching between time zones, your body gets confused. I never tend to feel that hungry after night shifts, but I end up feeling sick instead. Personally, I find eating small meals or snacks through a night shift, and trying to stick to my normal pattern of eating during daytime really helps my body stay on track. This also helps when you’re transitioning back to being awake during the day again. E.g. if I wake up at 3pm after a night shift, I’ll have something small like yoghurt, then a proper dinner at 6pm before I go back to work. Then I’ll eat small things during the night shift, little and often. Then I’ll eat breakfast at 8am before I go to sleep. So in essence, you’re trying to disturb your normal eating pattern as little as possible.
- Try not to sleep all day on your days off – I personally really struggle switching from nights back to days. After the last night shift, I let myself sleep for four hours maximum, and then get up and do something. I try and plan actually meeting up with someone so that I don’t get tempted just to sleep all day, as that’s what my body really wants to do sometimes. If you can do something outdoors, then even better. It lets your body adjust to being awake in the daytime again, and you’ll hopefully be pretty tired by the evening and should sleep well during the night. I find if I sleep all day it only makes it worse, and I end up wasting those precious days off.
- Drink a lot of water and avoid caffeine – I know this is an obvious and boring one, but it does actually help. I find myself having to take painkillers after a day shift if I don’t drink enough, as I feel so ill. The more water you can drink the better, and personally I find caffeine doesn’t do me any favours on a night shift. It might keep you awake for a bit, but I don’t think the crash is worth it, especially if your body is fighting to stay awake anyway. I feel the same way about sugar on a night shift; and the same rules apply to the sugar crash. Herbal teas are great if you’re not very good at drinking water, and peppermint tea is a life-saver on a night shift, as pretty much everyone starts feeling really ill and bloated around 4am. I swear that stuff is magic; if in doubt, drink peppermint tea.
- Attempt to eat some good stuff – and when I say “attempt”, I do mean that pretty loosely. This is the part where I’m supposed to tell everyone to eat low GI, complex carbs that will last you the whole shift, but barely anyone wants to eat healthy stuff on a night shift, or after a long shift. You’re really tired, and all your body craves is rubbish. I think if you can get any good stuff in at all, then that’s an achievement, as ultimately it will make you feel better than eating complete rubbish throughout the night. Try and bring your own food in on a day shift incase you don’t get a break (I’ve learnt the hard way many times on this one), and it should stop you reaching for the biscuits and chocolate at 5pm when you’re desperate. I always cook something really carb heavy for day shifts (pasta, rice etc) as I know it has to fill me up for ages. If you’ve been able to get something in the fridge ready for when you wake up/get in, then even better.
- Look after yourself – this is probably the most important one. Really try and look after yourself between shifts, because 12.5 hours of being a healthcare professional is really hard work, mentally and physically. Self-care means something different for every individual. It might mean going for a walk, reading a book for half an hour, meeting a friend for coffee or ordering a takeaway. It doesn’t have to be meditation, yoga classes and eating clean. It’s just taking time to do something you enjoy and detaching yourself from being at work. Think of yourself like a phone battery, if you don’t re-charge yourself between shifts then you won’t be starting at 100%, and the battery will go down even further. You can’t care for people if you don’t care for yourself first.
I hope you find these useful and you can find more blog posts on self-care in healthcare on my blog, www.lottielivewell.com