The Truth About Shift Work Disorder as a Nurse

Choosing the Right Nursing Master’s Program for You

Many of us have our working hours set and they don’t change very often. Other than our standard and predictable 9 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday working hours, we’re likely not often asked to put in more time or work weekends or even nights. This might be the reality for some of us, but certainly not all. Millions of people work strange hours or ever-changing shifts, sometimes during the day and sometimes at night. Weekends and holidays need to be covered too, so there are no real prescribed rest days either. A prime example of chaotic shift work is nurses working in hospitals, where cover is required every hour of every day. This makes nurses and others who work shifts susceptible to something called Shift Work Disorder.

What Is Shift Work Disorder?

Shift Work Disorder is classified in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) as affecting those who work very early mornings, through the evening or nights, and particularly those that work these hours on a rotational shift basis. By constantly changing when we’re awake and when we’re sleeping (and subsequently rearranging what is considered our night-time and daytime), we’re putting ourselves at risk of Shift Work Disorder.

Signs and Symptoms of Shift Work Disorder

Symptoms include things like:

  • feeling excessively sleepy
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • a loss of energy and productivity
  • concentration issue
  • physical symptoms like frequent headaches
  • short temper
  • …and generally being a bit irritable.

Some people might be more at risk of developing Shift Work Disorder than others. There is evidence to suggest that older people or people that already drink, smoke or already suffer from different sleep disorders could be at higher risk.

Why is it a Problem?

We’ve almost already answered this, but apart from feeling a bit tired and the odd headache, why is it a problem? You see, our bodies have the natural want to be awake during the day when it’s light outside and the sun is up and asleep at night when it’s dark. This is called our body’s circadian rhythm. Working shifts, particularly overnight, disrupts this rhythm, but changing when you sleep or are awake occasionally is even more detrimental to this rhythm. It can cause long term issues with sleep and insomnia.

There are other risks associated with Shift Work Disorder that you might not think about but are very real. Things like workplace injuries or even car accidents due to fatigue and a loss of concentration start to become very real. Some might turn to drugs or pharmaceutical aids to help them stay awake and alert which could lead to dependencies. Medical conditions related to a lack of proper sleep could also start to pose a problem – like hypertension and diabetes. Some studies even note the risk of an increased chance of breast and bowel cancers.

Tips to Help with Shift Work Disorder

Nursing is an incredibly noble and rewarding profession, and employers are becoming more and more accommodating to preventing things like Shift Work Disorder from affecting their staff. As a nurse, you’ll learn some techniques on how to cope with shift work during your studies, but it never hurts having a few more. If a change in schedule or shifts isn’t an option, here are a few things you can try to help you sleep outside of a normal sleeping schedule.

  • Make your room as dark as you can – You can do this in a number of ways, but the most common is by using blackout curtains, which are designed to block a much higher percentage of light from coming through your windows than normal curtains. Lined curtains can also help with this. You could also use a sleep mask.
  • Keep your room temperature consistent and cool – You might need to invest in an air conditioning unit if you haven’t got one already, but the impact it can have on the quality of your sleep is immeasurable. Ensuring your bedroom is a consistently cool temperature, particularly in the daytime heat of the summer, will mean you’re not too hot and this will improve the quality of your sleep drastically.
  • Make your sleeping environment as quiet as possible – This isn’t only about noise, but about limiting distractions too. Take the TV out of your bedroom and charge your mobile phone where you can’t reach it or be distracted by it. Don’t sleep with music playing and if you need to, don’t be afraid to use earplugs. Just make sure that if you need it, you can still hear your wake-up alarm!
  • Don’t eat big meals before bed – Your body needs to use energy to digest food, and eating a large meal before sleep can cause your sleep to be broken and ineffective. Rather eat a bigger lunch or mid-shift meal and a smaller meal before bed. Try not to eat anything for at least an hour before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine before bed and during working hours – Drinking coffee in the hours leading up to bed will mean you’ll probably struggle to fall asleep and might wake up more than you need to. While it might be tempting to keep yourself going with a few cups of coffee, as a rule of thumb, you should not consume any more caffeine from about halfway through your shift to make sure you get good sleep when you do get to bed.
  • Avoid having a long commute – Your commute is cutting into your sleeping or relaxation time, so if at all possible, you’ll want your commute to be as short as possible. This might mean living closer to work, or it might mean finding a more efficient way to commute to and from work. Commutes can be boring too, and boredom can make you tired! Additionally, if you are still studying, you might want to consider these online nurse practitioner programs from Carson-Newman, where the course is 100% online, further cutting down on travel.
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