Many nurses do not have a consistent schedule from week to week. Some will work a day shift for a period of time and follow that with a stretch of night shifts. This inconsistency in schedules can be difficult for a nurse’s wellbeing, both physically and emotionally.
Dangers of an Irregular Work Schedule
The human body develops an internal clock, helping regulate periods of rest and periods of alertness. This circadian rhythm is vulnerable to interruptions. An odd sleep schedule for a few days in a row can lead to frustration, fatigue, and diminished work performance. When you must contend with irregular shifts on a constant basis while working as a nurse, it can feel impossible to adjust to a schedule that seems to change on a weekly basis. As soon as your circadian rhythm seems to adjust to your schedule, you encounter a schedule change and need to start adjusting all over again.
Irregular shifts or rotating shifts can have dramatic health consequences later in life. Individuals who work irregular shifts often face an increased risk of developing certain medical conditions. For example, overconsumption of sugar and caffeine increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Poor sleep schedules in general can lead to irritability, short temper, and a higher chance of making serious mistakes at work. Some studies have linked irregular sleep schedules and mismatched circadian rhythms to an increased risk of developing certain cancers.
Irregular day/night cycles or work/rest schedules can eventually lead to problems with blood pressure and other cardiovascular medical issues. Along with increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, shift workers generally have an increased mortality risk from certain types of cancer as well.
Adapt to Irregular Shifts
Nutrition is one of the best methods for fighting fatigue and the other negative effects of rotating shifts and irregular sleep schedules. Leafy vegetables encourage proper digestion and promote healthy bowel movements while helping avoid carbohydrate crashes. Sugary and caffeinated beverages may help some wake up in the morning, but over-reliance on these drinks can lead to serious sugar crashes and can interfere with metabolic processes, increasing the risk of obesity and other medical complications.
Save carbohydrate-rich foods for the first meal after a shift. This extra energy can help your body overcome fatigue and promote better rest. During a shift, try to focus on vegetables and lean proteins for a healthier supply of energy than carbs and sugars. Hydration is also crucial; proper water intake during a shift is much more beneficial and ultimately healthier than pounding cup after cup of coffee to stay awake.
Consider Your Scheduling Options
Some hospitals allow for a “six-days-on, eight-days-off” schedule for nurses. This allows a lot more flexibility when it comes to getting non-work-related things done but it essentially clumps all of your shifts together. Prepare to step away from the rest of the world during your workdays if you choose this type of schedule and arrange other responsibilities for your off days.
These are just a few ways nurses can overcome the challenges of rotating or irregular shifts. Ultimately, the best approach is to develop a rest and eating routine that fits around any schedule. A nutritious meal before a shift, healthy snacks and hydration during a shift, and a larger, more well-rounded meal and adequate rest after a shift can help ease the burdens of fatigue and frustration that accompany odd schedules.