You’ve earned your degree, passed the NCLEX exam and are excited to jump head first into your new nursing career. You feel prepared and confident as you look toward beginning your career helping patients. But as you peruse job openings, there’s one thing you’re not so sure about: which shift you should work as a nurse.
Nurses are famous for working schedules that are both flexible and well outside the usual 9-to-5 shift. After all, patients need care 24/7, not just during regular business hours! The multitude of schedule options may be one perk that drew you to a nursing career in the first place. Now you need to decide if you can handle working the night shift.
It may be scary to think about taking on a nocturnal job, but there are plenty of ways you can make working the night shift a little less painful. Many nurses actually prefer night shifts! We talked to nocturnal nurses who are night-shift veterans to give you the inside scoop on what it’s really like working the night shift — and how to know if this unusual schedule is right for you.
How is the night shift different from the day shift?
The biggest difference you’ll notice is a drop in activity level. Hospitals that are bustling with physicians, physical therapists and social workers during the day get significantly quieter during the night shift after everyone goes home, says Eileen Sollars, RN, ADN, who has worked the night shift for more than a decade.
Though the peaceful setting of a hospital at night may appear less stressful, there are still plenty of trying job duties for night nurses to deal with. “Night work is just as hard as the day shift, but in a different manner,” Sollars says. Night nurses may not have to deal with difficult family members or make sure patients get their meals, but they do take on additional tasks, like lifting and turning patients on their own.
Nurses working the night shift get a bit of independence from hovering doctors or micromanaging administrators — but that freedom comes with extra responsibility. Sollars was initially surprised to find that acute hospitals don’t always have a doctor in the house! This means night-shift nurses are fully responsible for monitoring changes in patient conditions and notifying a physician if an emergency arises.
Ultimately, the biggest priority a night-shift nurse has is giving patients a “restful, healing night,” Sollars says.
What are the perks of working the night shift?
One of the major advantages of working the night shift is “the less frenzied pace associated with evenings and nights at hospitals and other inpatient facilities,” says Nick Angelis, author of How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School). Nurses who thrive with a bit of independence and a relaxed atmosphere will appreciate the night-shift setting. At night, there are no “meddling managers interfering with efficiency and getting the job done,” Angelis says.
“I find on the night shift a lot of mentoring takes place. Pick a few experienced nurses you can always go to with questions. ”
Other advantages to working the night shift include the ability to run errands during the day while everyone else is at work and the ability to coordinate child care with your partner. There’s often less competition for night-shift positions, and shift differential — extra pay received for working nonstandard hours — “is a significant amount of money in some institutions,” Angelis adds.
How do nurses adjust to working the night shift?
The key for night-shift nurses is to pick a schedule and stick with it. “There are only two sleeping patterns for the night shift,” says Sollars. Option one: Go to bed as soon as you get home from work, then get up a few hours before you need to work again to get things done and have a social life. Option two: Come home from work and stay up for a while, then go to bed and wake up in time to get ready for your next night shift.
The sleep schedule that works best for you will depend on your family life and your own personal preference — but sticking to a schedule is key. “It's important to stay healthy if you're ignoring the natural circadian rhythms everyone else lives by,” Angelis says. He recommends keeping your body’s rhythms as stable as possible by eating meals at the same time every day and sleeping in a dark room during the day.
It’s also important to keep your body healthy from a nutritional standpoint. It can be tempting to skip breaks when you’re working in a slower-paced environment, but Angelis recommends “avoiding the pressure to not take a real break” and using that time to eat a healthy meal that will refuel your energy. That means something more substantial than coffee and a frozen dinner.
Angelis recommends looking for high-fat foods, like full-fat yogurt, to keep you full longer and avoiding carbohydrates that will give you a massive energy drop later. High-protein foods like almond butter or unprocessed jerky are also good options for keeping your energy up during a long night shift.
How do I know if the night shift is right for me?
The night shift still sounds intriguing, but you don’t want to jump into nocturnal hours if you’re going to spend your whole shift yawning and gulping coffee. But the only way to truly know if you’re a good fit for the night shift is to give it a try — and don’t base your decision on one shift of night work. “Give it a few weeks to really tell if working the night shift is for you,” Sollars advises.
During your trial run as a night-shift nurse, don’t be afraid to ask questions and rely on your fellow nurses for help. “I find on the night shift a lot of mentoring takes place,” Sollars says. “Pick a few experienced nurses you can always go to with questions. We are cooperative and supportive of our newer nurses.”
Which shift will you be working?
Whether you choose to become a nocturnal nurse working the night shift or take on traditional day hours, you can be satisfied knowing you’ve chosen a career dedicated to helping others.
Days versus nights are just one of your scheduling options as a nurse. Read up on The Nursing Debate: 8-Hour Shifts vs. 12-Hour Shifts to find the schedule that best fits your lifestyle!