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The Effects of Working the Night Shift

Written by Julia Tortorice
Night Shift Nurse

Photo by: Nick (Flickr)

Working the night shift affects everyone, not just nurses.

Working the Night Shift

Night shift nurses might be the envy of some of their colleagues if they receive increased pay, but I can assure you that being a night shift nurse comes with a high cost: your health. Since the beginning of industries requiring 24-hour work shifts, we have sensed that working night shift hours doesn't resonate well with our bodies. Past studies have shown that the effects of working night shifts cause all sorts of chaos to our system; recent studies tell us why.

Night Shift Effects

Night shift nurses make up a portion of the 8.6 million Americans who work unusual hours -- that is, not from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- and all Americans scheduled on "shift" work suffer the schedule-related consequences. Whether you are a night shift nurse or work overnight in another vocation, you are more susceptible to heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders, obesity, impaired glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, and sleep deprivation than your day shift counterparts. On top of that, you are also more susceptible to making mistakes during your shift, and when it comes to nursing, mistakes can be deadly.

You see, alongside the health effects suffered by those working night shift hours, you simply aren't as alert as those working the day shift. In fact, recent studies have shown that 56 percent of night shift nurses are sleep-deprived and are at greater risk of causing needle-stick injuries to their patients and/or themselves due to poor psychomotor performance. In addition, mistakes in administering medications and treatments, impaired emergency reaction skills, decreased critical thinking skills, decreased communication skills, and the inability to perform many other critical nursing duties have long been attributed to nursing fatigue.

Causes of Night Shift Effects

It's clear that the effects of working the night shift are frightening and serious, but what actually causes a night shift nurse to suffer from ill health more than a day shift nurse? It's called circadian misalignment, which is the official name for a messed-up sleep pattern. Circadian misalignment is the effect of a conflict between your body's natural biological clock and the hours that you are actually keeping. Most people's bodies are naturally set to wake up at sunrise and go to sleep at sundown; those working night shift hours are reversing their body's natural sleeping and eating cycle, misaligning their circadian rhythms.

On top of misaligning the body's natural clock by the working the night shift, many misalign it even more by keeping a normal sleeping and eating schedule during their days off. Nurses have families at home that require their care, too, and many nurses switch from sleeping during the day so they can work at night to sleeping during the night so they can spend time with their families during the day. This causes additional confusion and deprivation to your sleep cycle, and the consequence is even more fatigue than what is just caused by working the night shift. It seems that even on your day off, you cannot win the fight against the effects of the night shift!

What You Can Do

You're scheduled on the night shift, you have to work those hours, and you have a family at home that needs you on your day off. I, and many others, feel your pain. Don't worry -- there's hope, and part of that hope applies directly to nurses in the form of the Registered Nurse Safe Staffing Act of 2013. This pending legislation proposes significant changes to the way nurses are staffed with the purpose of reducing nursing fatigue. These staffing changes would naturally include night shift nursing schedules, as they are prone to suffer more from fatigue than day shift nurses.

Nurses have another helpful option, as do other night shift workers not covered by the Safe Staffing Act should it pass, and that simple option is to take a nap. Studies have suggested that napping nurses suffer from less fatigue than non-napping nurses. Dubbed "restorative" naps, these catnaps refresh tired nurses who take them during their regularly scheduled breaks. There are a couple of hitches to napping, however. One is that not all hospitals allow nurses to catnap; another is that the nurses are often hard-pressed to find time to nap due to emergencies. That said, we now understand why working the night shift is detrimental to our health, so now we can find some solutions to reduce those negative effects.