If you’re a medical professional who will be working night shifts or long shifts, you know that there will be some challenges in your work. Sure, you might be able to stay awake, but what about staying mentally alert and ready to tackle any situations that crop up?
To help you stay on top of your game, whether you’re heading into work at night or clocking in for a double, here are a few tips for staying alert during your shift.
Take a cat nap during your shift
If your unit allows for it, use one of your breaks to take a quick nap. Many people mistakenly think they need to keep pushing through exhaustion to stay awake and alert, but cat napping can be an effective way to recharge.
Even 10 minutes to close your eyes can help your body to “reset” itself. Just be sure to tell your coworkers where you are before you lay down and set an alarm. OK, maybe two alarms.
Don’t stay awake the day before a night shift
Many medical professionals who work night shift try staying up the day before their night shift to help try to keep their “normal” lives and sleep schedules intact. They may try to sleep in the morning before a night shift and then stay up all night. Unfortunately, studies have found that this isn’t a helpful strategy. Getting some kind of rest before you work is crucial to staying alert and maintaining your body’s sleep system.
Instead of pulling an all-dayer, schedule in some time to nap before your night shift begins. Even if it’s a very short nap, something is better than nothing to help give your body a time to rest. Catching some shut eye before a long night will help you stay mentally alert when it counts.
Use caffeine strategically
We all have different relationships with caffeine and we would never tell you not to have your coffee for your shift— But you may want to use it strategically so you stay healthy and maintain a sleep cycle that works for you. One study found that using caffeine to stay awake on night shift actually interfered with daytime sleep after the shift was over.
Instead of guzzling coffee or other caffeine-infused beverages all night long or through your shift, use it strategically and aim not to drink anything with caffeine within two hours of your shift ending. Try keeping a stash of high-protein snacks to nosh on when you feel your energy dragging. Unlike carbs or caffeine, protein will help keep you alert without requiring your body to burn any precious extra energy.
One of the hardest parts about night shift is regulating your own body temperature. You can go from running through a code and sweating to freezing in the matter of minutes. As the night goes on or your shift drags on and your body becomes fatigued, it also lowers its body temperature naturally.
Thanks to a shift in the melatonin hormones that occurs (you know, because you’re supposed to be sleeping), the body’s temperature also drops for the sleep state. The lower temperature helps your body slow down for sleep, but it’s not so handy when you’re not actually sleeping.
And although it might sound like a little thing, comfort is key when you’re dealing with extreme fatigue during a shift. The last thing you need is to be battling the cold or the heat while you’re trying to stay awake and save lives. As an easy solution, throw on a lightweight layer, like medical white lab coats or a scrub jacket.
They’re easy to throw on when you’re cold and easy to take off when you start moving again, and keep you looking professional and put together while staying comfortable on an unenviable shift.
Working a night shift or a long shift is not always easy; All the tricks and hacks in the world can’t be a substitute for getting the rest your body actually needs. On your days off, be sure to refuel and rest in a healthy way — getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating nutritious foods — so you can get back to doing the work that you love without wearing yourself down.