Advice for Nurses Who Work a Scattered Schedule

Nurse's schedule with dates marked off

Nursing is among the top professions with the busiest, most chaotic schedules. Health care is an around-the-clock job, and while nurses know to expect this, adjusting to the always-on environment may be more difficult than anticipated.

In what can already be a stressful and demanding occupation, having to manage a scattered schedule that includes transitioning between night and day shifts can be quite challenging, especially when you’re first starting out in your career. If you want to work in this field, it’s important to know the specific issues shift workers — those who work nontraditional hours — face, so you understand how critical it is to take care of yourself.

According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), shift workers face a higher risk of experiencing sleep disturbances and insomnia, which may lead to poor concentration, absenteeism, and even occupational accidents and injuries. They are also at an increased risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, colds, and weight gain, as well as chronic illnesses, including heart and gastrointestinal diseases.

Taking proper care of yourself is not just important for your own well-being — it also influences the quality of care you’re able to provide to your patients.

The good news is there are ways to ensure you not only survive in the inconsistency, but actually thrive in it. Below are some tips and strategies to help make your scattered nursing schedule more manageable.

Schedule your sleep

Unsurprisingly, sleep is one of the top concerns nurses have about working night shifts. It can be hard to adjust to a new sleeping pattern, mentally and physically, but not impossible. It requires retraining your body to fall and stay asleep during a different cycle.

Citing research from the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders, the NSF explained that the sleep disorders shift workers experience boil down to the human biological clock and its 24-hour circadian rhythm output. The contrast between light and darkness plays a pivotal role in circadian clock regulation.

There are a few methods for tricking your internal clock to make it easier to sleep during the day. For example:

  • Use eye masks, ear plugs, and blackout curtains to eliminate noise and light.
  • Wear sunglasses on the way home to minimize light exposure.
  • Avoid using phones and other electronics 30 minutes to an hour before bed.

Also, arrange your personal responsibilities so they don’t interrupt your sleep whenever possible. For example, if you have children, schedule any appointments for either directly after or right before a shift.

Prioritize how you spend your time

Not only can it be disorienting adhering to a schedule that is opposite that of your friends and families, it can also be inconvenient. If you’re concerned about the scattered schedule becoming a strain on your personal relationships, make a conscious effort to set aside time every week to spend with your loved ones when everyone is available — even if it is only for a brief period.

Michelle Diederich, RN at the Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, explained to that she and her husband are used to working different schedules that only leave them with a couple hours each day together.

“I had to learn the mindset that quality of time is more important than quantity of time together,” she said, adding that she takes time for herself as well. “I make sure that I take time to do things just for myself, whether it is going to the gym, reading a book, or watching my favorite show on television.”

There is no need to sacrifice sleep on behalf of your hectic work schedule, nor should it keep you from maintaining a healthy personal life or taking opportunities to advance your career.
A critical aspect of successful time management — both at work and at home — is making sure you are spending your time in meaningful and efficient ways.

For example, if you’re interested in continuing your health care education, enrolling in an online Master of Science in Nursing program can provide you with the flexibility to complete your coursework conveniently and without interrupting your work schedule.

Eat and exercise for energy

As a nurse, you already know the importance of maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. But sometimes it’s easier to preach than practice. For both night and day shifts, pack your own lunch as often as possible to ensure you are mindful about what you’re eating.

Some foods can give you energy without the crash and burn effect. suggests consuming smaller and lighter meals more frequently that are high-protein, low-fat, and include complex carbohydrates, such as salads, fruit, and nuts.

Even when you’re running around caring for your patients, remember to stay hydrated by regularly drinking water or fruit juices. Although caffeinated beverages may be helpful to give you a jolt of alertness at the beginning of a shift, avoid them toward the end of the shift if you know you will be trying to go to sleep in a few hours.

To maintain energy throughout your shifts, it’s also helpful to construct an exercise routine that best accommodates your work and sleep schedule.

According to an article in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine titled “Fatigue Risk Management in the Workplace” there is evidence suggesting that exercise during certain times of the day can influence the circadian clock. Therefore, the best time to get in some physical activity for nurses working at night would be at the beginning of the shift — ideally between midnight and 2 a.m.

Maintain a positive and engaged mindset

When you’re feeling frustrated or even exhausted because of the inconsistency of your schedule, it’s important to remember your mindset and attitude have a lot to do with your ability to persevere — even when your patience, and energy, are wearing thin.

Stay positive by reflecting on why you chose to enter the nursing field in the first place. When you remind yourself that this is a passion, not simply an obligation, it helps alleviate the burden you may feel.

Also keep in mind there are many upsides to working each type of shift. For example, although the functions of your role are essentially the same, the night shifts tend to yield a calmer and less chaotic atmosphere. This environment gives nurses the opportunity to talk and bond with patients in ways they don’t get to during the day shifts when the hospital is bustling with more activity.

The same goes for co-workers. Felicia Rasmussen, an RN in Nebraska, told that one of the things she misses about working the night shift is the camaraderie she was able to build with her co-workers.

“When we had time to have talks with each other about personal things and family, then that’s when we got very close,” she said. “We also would find humor where we could. Night shift workers are really unique people.”

The calmer environment of these shifts may even mean having more downtime to focus on other tasks, such as studying for your online Master’s in Nursing degree.

Finally, be honest with yourself, co-workers, managers, and loved ones about what you can comfortably commit to with your schedule. If you need to take time off after a particularly stressful or chaotic week, don’t be afraid to ask for it. When you spend so much time caring for other people’s health, it’s important to make sure that it’s not at the expense of your own.



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