Not only is nursing one of the noblest professions, but it’s also one of the most popular. There are over 4 million RNs in the United States alone, working in various capacities and settings.
Most nurses who work in a hospital or busy clinic have 12-hour shifts. There are benefits to that kind of schedule. You might work for fewer days because you’re getting most of your hours compacted into just three or four days a week. Longer shifts also allow nurses to spend more time with patients, so there aren’t as many changes.
However, these shifts can make it difficult to strike a healthy work-life balance, especially when working overnight or coming home exhausted. One of the biggest challenges nurses often face is finding time to get adequate sleep without giving up the rest of their lives.
Building a regular sleep schedule is the best thing you can do for your physical and mental health. It will help prevent burnout, make you better at your job, and improve your work-life balance so you can let go of the love-hate relationship you’ve developed with the traditional 12-hour shift.
So, how can you establish a regular sleep schedule, improve your “sleep hygiene,” and get the rest you deserve? Let’s cover a few tips you can start putting into practice right away.
Why Sleep Is So Important
As a nurse, we probably don’t need to tell you why getting enough sleep is beneficial for your body. You likely already know how it can boost your immune system, improve heart health, and even help to prevent weight gain.
However, it’s also important to recognize the mental health benefits of sleep and the dangers of not getting enough. Some of the biggest mental health benefits include
- Lower risk of depression and anxiety
- Improved memory
- Improved productivity and creativity
- Reduced stress
In a high-stress job that requires a lot of attention to detail, managing your mental health is essential. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to care for your patients effectively.
When you don’t prioritize sleep, you could end up putting yourself and others in danger. Excessive work hours can lead to both physical and mental fatigue for nurses. Add that to not getting enough sleep, and you could face burnout very quickly. Some of the consequences of nurse burnout include everything from drowsiness to impaired judgment. Obviously, those aren’t things you want to worry about when someone’s well-being is in your hands.
Now that you know the importance of sleep for your physical and mental well-being, how can you ensure you’re getting the rest you need?
Fix Your Sleep Schedule
When most people think about getting a good night’s sleep, it’s getting an adequate amount of rest each night. However, for nurses, your schedule could cause you to be up all night, get home late, or have to get to work very early in the morning. You might not be able to go to sleep at 9:00 pm and wake up at 5:00 am every day.
Unfortunately, that can throw off your body’s natural circadian rhythms. You might find it difficult to sleep during the day or wind down enough after your shift to fall asleep for a long stretch.
Thankfully, there are things you can do to fix your sleep schedule, no matter what shift you’re on. A few of the easiest ways to reset your internal clock include
- Adjusting your exposure to light
- Practicing relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation
- Exercising every day
- Avoiding noise as you try to sleep
Your environment plays a big role in how your mind and body react to sleep. If you’re going to your bedroom to sleep in the middle of the day, it’s going to be harder to do with all of your windows open and the house warmer than it is at night.
Create an ideal sleep environment for yourself, no matter the time. Try to use your bedroom only for sleeping, not for watching TV, working on other things, or even scrolling on your phone. It should be a place that exudes calm energy, so consider painting and redecorating to make it feel more like a sanctuary.
Finally, make sure your environment is comfortable and cool. The ideal temperature for sleep is between 68-72 degrees. Heat tends to interfere with sleep more than cold, so err on the side of keeping things chillier.
By fixing these things and making some small changes, it won’t matter when your shifts are. You’ll have an easier time adjusting your mind and body and can fall asleep any time of day. Once you do, try to stick with that routine so your circadian rhythms adjust faster, and you’ll get used to your new routine. A sleep schedule will benefit your brain, improve your overall health, and create a healthy sleep-wake pattern that will make you excited to go to work, rather than dreading another long shift.
Habits to Avoid
When you’re not getting enough sleep, you might be willing to do whatever it takes to stay awake, both during your shift and once you get home. It’s necessary to be alert at work, and understandable to want to stay awake during your free time, so you don’t “miss out” on family time or a social life.
However, some of your habits for staying awake could end up doing more harm than good. That includes what you consume throughout the day. Certain foods can give you more energy, including
While these can all be healthy ingredients for meals or snacks, they could be keeping you awake if you consume them too close to your bedtime. Coffee is another culprit. Many people need a “caffeine kick” to get going at the start of their day. However, if you’re consuming coffee throughout the day to stay awake and energized, you could have a harder time falling asleep. A good rule of thumb is to stop drinking coffee at least six hours before you plan on going to sleep.
Even your sleep routine habits could be making it difficult for you to get the right amount of rest. For example, how often do you spend time looking at your phone before you close your eyes? While it might feel like a way to relax and unwind, the blue light emitted from most digital devices stimulates your brain and makes it harder for your body to get into a relaxed state.
Understanding what you should do and what to avoid can make it easier to build a regular sleep schedule. In doing so, you’ll be better prepared at work, and have an easier time striking a work-life balance because you won’t be so tired all the time. Keep these tips in mind, and make regular sleep a top priority when it comes to your well-being. Your general health, your friends, family, and even your patients will thank you for it.
Tips for on-the-job when suffering from shift-work sleep disorder:
- If possible, take brief naps during work breaks, but limit them to 10-30 minutes.
- If working a rotating-shift schedule, talk to your employer about moving your next shift "forward" as it's easier on the circadian rhythm to sleep in a little more rather than less.
- Drink caffeine while at work, but not shortly before getting off or close to bedtime.
- Do the mundane work tasks first so they won't make you nod off later in your shift. Do stimulating work near the end of the shift.
- Get active during breaks instead of resting. Take walks, exercise, or engage in stimulating activities.
- Talk with your coworkers about your sleep troubles, and troubleshoot ideas to help you stay awake and alert.
- Avoid long commutes that could take away from getting more sleep.
- Avoid working extended hours.
- Get enough sleep on your days off.
- If you're a trucker, pull over at rest stops for naps if you're feeling tired or drowsy while driving.
If you're an Alaskan shift-worker and are experiencing difficulty with maintaining quality sleep, contact the Alaska Sleep Clinic and receive a free 10-minute phone call with a sleep educator. In this phone call we can help determine if a sleep study at one of our 4 locations may be appropriate in diagnosing and treating your condition. Don't let poor sleep get in the way of you and success at work and your personal life, contact us today.