Why Those Who Work the Night Shift Actually Need Sleep During the Day

Is it just me, or does no one seem to get enough sleep? Add in working the night shift, and it shrinks even more! Then you get the comments like, why do you nap so much or, you seriously fell asleep at your 9 a.m. appointment waiting for the doctor? Let me take you through what it is like to work nights, the bad and the good, and how to manage it. Nurses Career Support Article


Why Those Who Work the Night Shift Actually Need Sleep During the Day

Those who work the night shift actually need sleep during the day (despite what the rest of the world might think)!

Having sleep issues is very common for those of us who work the night shift. We typically roll out of bed at 3 or 4 in the afternoon and start our day. We shower and get ready for work. We help the kids with their homework or drive them to their activity. Next, we make dinner and pack an extra meal for us to eat while at work; who even knows if it should be another dinner, breakfast or just snacks? Though research shows that high-protein meals are better than not eating or having a high-carb meal during the night. Many of us then have to head to work for 7 p.m., and a few of us get a few more hours, and maybe an extra nap in, before heading to work for 11 p.m. 

True, our commutes are so much better than those of you who work during the day and sit in traffic; I will give you that. We then punch in, and our long night has started. Despite what you might think, we are not taking naps at work. We are saving lives, admitting patients, and doing patient teaching, things that have to be done 24 hours a day, not just on days.

By morning, we are exhausted, just like you are at the end of your shift but to the next degree because we also had to push our bodies to stay awake and function despite our brain knowing we should be sleeping like the rest of the world.

We then drive against the traffic to get home while wearing sunglasses to block out the bright sunlight ... like some sort of vampire. Upon arriving home, most of us just want to crawl into bed. Some still have things to do, like getting the kids ready for school, cleaning, or eating breakfast.

If we don't have to go back to work that night, most of us will take a 3-5 hour nap just to be able to function for the second half of the day. Yes, there are a few sadomasochists who will just stay up and power through the day, usually because they have small children to watch.

When we wake up, we start doing the thousands of things that didn't get done yesterday when we were sleeping between shifts. Then the kids get home, we again help with homework, take them to their activities and make dinner. So yes ... that "nap" we took is a necessity; it allows us to function as a human for a few hours until we can go to bed for real that night ... like the rest of the world!

Here are some things to consider to help get the sleep you need. Blackout curtains or shades are a must, as is having a routine when you get home in the morning before getting into bed. Trying melatonin or sleeping pills (OTC or prescription) is always an option. CBT has been shown to help you get into the mindset for the restful sleep you need. Working your shifts back-to-back may help you get onto a decent sleep schedule for a few days at least.

Working the night shift has been linked to depression, obesity, chronic insomnia, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. It also can age us by changing our physical appearance or affecting our sexual function. Many of these issues are irreversible, continuing to affect our health negatively or even putting us at higher risk for death. Playing catch-up on your night off doesn't cancel out the damage that is done working overnight. If you are young and have no other commitments, you have the option of just swapping all your days and nights, so it becomes your norm. But most people are unable to do that and tend to go back to a normal sleeping pattern on their nights off, maybe just staying up a little later than most people. Unfortunately, this is very disruptive to our circadian rhythm.

Let me end with this, though, I still love working night shifts, and don't see myself changing to days anytime soon. We have the benefit of attending our children's activities, the flexibility of making appointments ... and the shift differential can't be beat. And, of course, some of the best benefits are the comradery that just can't seem to happen in quite the same way on other shifts; we have to learn to rely on one another since there is rarely any help waiting in the wings. 


Caring for the Country: Fatigue, Sleep and Mental Health in Australian Rural Paramedic Shiftworkers

Preventive and compensatory measures for shift workers

Adaptation to shift work: physiologically based modeling of the effects of lighting and shifts' start time

Tara Conley, BSN, RN has been a nurse for over 20 years, working in both pediatrics and the NICU. She lives with her boyfriend and 2 children in Massachusetts. In her free time, she likes to read books, binge Netflix and work on her freelance health writing.

1 Article   1 Post

Share this post

Share on other sites
Specializes in ICU.

I definitely agree with you here.

It's difficult not only to be up all night - but to have to try and sleep while your whole house was awake. <- I though that was the hardest part about nights. I also have the tendency to get major FOMO at times, which causes it to be hard for me to sleep.

Key Assists in Sleeping During the Day:

1. Turning off your phone

2. Black out curtains

3. Telling family and friends you need some quiet

4. Eye mask and ear plugs ?

Specializes in New Critical care NP, Critical care, Med-surg, LTC.

I also swear by my blackout curtains, and I have a sound machine because ear plugs don't work well for me. I have the phone on do not disturb so only my immediate family can reach me and they usually know when I'm working so they wouldn't call unless something/someone is on fire. 

Summer is harder for me with the heat, the people mowing their lawns and the worst is when the tree cutters are in the neighborhood!

I did six years of night shift and I'm currently on dayshift orientation for a new position. I find I'm concerned about oversleeping and I rarely sleep well overnight on the days I have to work- not a problem I ever had on nights. It's also WAY too people-y out there on days. Can't wait to get back to me night shift and my night shift people. We're a different breed in many ways but I really feel like we work well together in a way that others don't get to experience. It's REALLY a team effort. I've got 16 years to go, I think they'll probably all be on nights, (but you never know what can happen so I'll take whatever comes). 

Specializes in Oncology, ID, Hepatology, Occy Health.

Totally agree with the camaraderie and mutual help on nights. Asking the unit next door if they need a hand when we're quiet and vice versa is normal practice. On days they have the interconnecting doors closed and don't even communicate. They don't even run to each other's emergency bells as we do. Just one example.

Into my 14th years of nights now and wouldn't go back to days in hospital for the world. I sleep well in the day with many of the tips above (blacked out room, phone off) and I adjust back to sleeping at night very easily. I find chamomile tea and melatonin helpful however I absolutely don't recommend "real" sleeping tablets. I've had collegaues have real problems getting themselves prescribed Zopiclone, Xanax etc. They have their place in crisis moments but they're not a long term solution. 

Specializes in Geriatrics.

Worked nights for 22 years straight now, and sometimes before too. I don't need blackout curtains or anything like that these days. I sleep better in the daytime. I do have however the upper back bedroom with a window air conditioner and a box fan for white noise. Something has to be really loud for me to hear in there. I only work PRN  now , so on my days off I modify my sleep pattern, go to bed like at 2 pm and get up at noon or so. Of course I am old now and my kids are grown up. LOL