The Dark Side Of The Shift

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.

I’ve always envied those who can flip flop back and forth between day shift and night shift. How do they do it?

I think I’ve nailed down some of their secrets, and in so doing have been able to work both day shifts and night shifts in succession. Happily! Nights are often a more peaceful time in the hospital and it’s definitely a nice change in my routine.

So, need some tips on how to survive the “dark side”?

Surviving the night shift.

Here are steps to jumpstart your circadian rhythm and allow for easier transitions from the normalcy of day shift to the non-so-routine night shift.

(1) If you are strictly a night shift nurse and you are having problems adjusting to the schedule, try a couple weeks of grouping all of the shifts together, three in a row. That way you can completely convert to night owl status for half of the week and then have four days to recover back to normalcy (that being if you indeed do work three 12-hr shifts).

For those who rotate and really cannot stand working three nights a week, ask your scheduling manager if you can split up your weeks into day and nights (be sure to work your days towards the beginning of the week and allow ample time for recovery after night shifts). For example, you would work Monday day shift and Wednesday and Thursday night shifts.

Wake up early on the day of your first night shift and take a nap in the afternoon. This strategy allows you to have a bulk of the morning to get stuff done and having some decent sleep prior to going into the long shift. I have heard people that just sleep in late (until like noon or 1 in the afternoon) crash around 3 or 4am because they have been up for so long.

My technique for the last day is to return home post last night shift, sleep for about four hours, then force yourself to wake up! You’ll be so tired by that night that you will be able to sleep during the night and be back on a somewhat normal day routine by the next morning.

(2) Right before a night shift, eat a substantial dinner prior to going into work (even if it is “breakfast-like”). That will hold you over for hours and give you a boost of energy to get the shift started. Try your best to avoid the comfort foods of night shift and bring a light meal full of protein and complex carbs that will fulfill your midnight munchies.

(3) Exercise! This not only applies to those working normal business hours. It becomes extremely important for those on night shifts because working out allows you to have more energy and creates for more sound sleep. I have friends that exercise after they get off their shift in the morning (I’ve always been too tired for that). If that is your preference, be sure to take time to wind down and drink a warm, non-caffeinated drink prior to going to sleep. I tend to exercise after I wake up – the beauty of that being that as opposed to working out early in the morning like a “normal” shift worker may do, you will be inundated with daylight hours for a nice run, pleasant early evening temperatures, and you will most likely beat the post 6pm rush at the gym. Hitting a wall at 4am? Run the stairs, it will most certainly wake you up.

(4) Isolate yourself! Be sure to tell your loved ones, your neighbors, and your kids that just like they don’t like being woken up at 2am, you don’t like to be disturbed during your “night”. Turn your phone off, buy dark curtains that will keep the daylight out of your room, wear an eye mask, lock the dog out of your room, tie up the children (kidding), and for goodness sake don’t drink coffee within four hours of going to sleep. If you “need” coffee to get through the shift, drink it early in the shift and combine water with a stair run later in the shift as an energy boost.

You mind is a powerful tool. Keep in mind all of the positives of night shift. It can be extremely conducive to family life if you are a working parent. The shift differential is an added bonus in the bank account. You typically have more autonomy as a nurse on the night shift and have ample time to develop skills and master your assessments. With the pace of the shift usually being slower, you have more time to develop close relationships with your coworkers because you are relying on each other for second opinions, assistance with tasks, and camaraderie in staying awake when everyone else is snug in their beds.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

This article was republished with permission from SCRUBS Magazine.


  1. Recently retired after 41 years of nights in the ED. Most of that was working 6 nights of 12 hr shifts in a row followed by 8 nights off. Never drank a cup of coffee, stuck with water or iced tea if I needed caffeine. When my company went to 8 hr shifts, that was the end for me as it destroyed the work/home balance. Best part was that if I took the 6 night vacation, that morphed into 22 nights off and I returned to work raring to go. My health was great and I had a 17 year stretch with no sick days. This was a great article, really got the essence of career night shift instead of all the negatives that come out of articles written by researchers that never walked the walk. Thanks!

  2. Absolutely agree to most of this article. I find that if I do my 3 night in a row that I can get back into a routine being off for the four. I try to give myself a break once a month, so to speak and schedule my first 3 nights in the beginning of my 2 week payroll and then three nights the end of that same 2 weeks, that way it gives me at least 6 nights off. Sort of a “mini vacation” without using vacation days. Also, always on my first night back, I plan for a long afternoon nap after lunch. I’ve been doing this for years. Took a switch to days for a short time only to get back on my night shift and loving it especially being an older nurse now. I feel the pace is better and I think it makes you a stronger nurse also. I don’t usually have any problem staying awake, as we do the 12 hour shifts. The coffee is definitely on at the beginning, but not after midnight. Drink lemon water. Do not eat before going in. Find it makes me feel sluggish. Eat more healthy and usually around 3 am or when I can. Thank you for this article. You seem to know your night shift!


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