It’s not all bad on the night shift. Night shift nurses don’t have to deal with visitors, doctors or supervisors, and have fewer interruptions. The night hours may work best for a nurse’s family situation as well. But could working at night, when 80 percent of the world sleeps, actually be hazardous to a nurse’s health?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that the disruption of the natural circadian rhythms that happens with night shift work is “probably carcinogenic.” Circadian rhythms involve regulation of body temperature, blood pressure, sleep/wake cycles, mental clarity, and hormonal secretions. The rhythm is cued by exposure to light and darkness. Over time, disruption to circadian rhythms can put a nurse in a constant stage of sleep deprivation.
Numerous studies have shown that night shift workers are at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, developing breast and colorectal cancer, irregular menstrual cycles and other fertility problems, strokes, higher blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and increased risks of anxiety and depression.
Nurses operating with a pervading sense of fatigue that night shift work causes may have slower reaction times, less attention to detail, decreased problem solving skills and impaired psychomotor skills. They may become irritable, forgetful, and complain of chills, nausea and eye-strain. The more consecutive night shift a nurse works, the worse it all gets and the higher the likelihood of making an error.
So what can be done to combat the increased health risks to both the nurse and subsequently, the patient?
– Whether working the night shift or off for a few days, try to stick as closely as possible to the same sleep schedule.
– Use blackout shades to keep the room as dark as possible.
– Use sunglasses to block out blue light when driving home from work.
– Keep the lights bright; this prevents the body from wanting to lower its temperature during the 0400-0600 hours.
– Avoid caffeine and nicotine before sleeping.
– Avoid large meals before sleeping.
– Sleep at least four hours.
– Expose your body to bright light upon waking.
– Most importantly, try to nap when you can.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends night shift napping for every person working at night in order to combat fatigue and increase mental clarity. In a study done with critical care nurses, 10 out of 13 nurses reported they’d felt more alert and had better moods when they napped on the job. Many healthcare facilities have adapted rooms to accommodate napping nurses by providing couches, recliners, blankets and pillows. These facilities not only tolerate but expect nurses to take nap breaks as part of their night shift routine. In order for nurses to care for their patients, they must first tend to their own needs. And that includes the need for sleep.