10 Ways to Deal with Long Shifts When You’re a Nurse

By Caroline Ortiz - November 5, 2021

Being a nurse has always been a demanding job. You work long hours and sometimes you don’t get all the help and support you need. Nursing has been a particularly exhausting career during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s not surprising that so many people are burning out and moving away from nursing.

Managing Long Nursing Shifts: Essential Strategies

This career is tough, but you can make it through even the most difficult shifts if you take care of yourself and do your best to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best. Here are our top 10 tips for getting through a long nursing shift, so that you can be healthier, happier, and more present in your life.

  1. Be Prepared

The first tip to help you overcome the challenges of a long shift is to be prepared. Being prepared means being mentally and physically ready for whatever you may see or do throughout your shift.

If you know that you’re going into a few 12-hour shifts in a row for example, you can mentally prepare for the fatigue that you may feel. In your mind, think about breaking the shift down into parts. Identify where you can find a quiet reprieve if necessary. Find out who you’re working with and determine in advance if and when you’ll have time for breaks, naps, and meals. Perhaps most importantly of all, wear comfortable clothing and shoes to prevent unnecessary discomfort.

It’s also beneficial to sit down and think through what’s going to happen during your shift. For example, if you’ll be working with kids, you might prepare differently than if you’re taking care of patients in the ICU. You may prepare differently for a night shift than for a morning shift, too. Get into the right mindset before you set foot into your workplace.

  1. Get Yourself Organized

You don’t want to be running around trying to find a charging cable for your tablet or phone in the middle of your shift. You don’t want to be late to meetings or appointments because you forgot your watch or miss lunch because you forgot to pack it. It may help to create a list of everything you need to take with you and set out or pack essentials in advance.

Try to organize your personal life, too. You still need to have a social life, and you should consider how to best manage your workload, so you can see the people you care about and reduce your anxiety.

  1. Hydrate and Eat Right

Not eating well or staying hydrated can make it difficult for you to get through a shift. You may get upset more easily or feel faint if you’re not eating or drinking enough.

Although these long shifts are demanding, that doesn’t mean that you should work through your breaks. If you aren’t eating or staying hydrated, you could be endangering yourself and your patients. For that reason, you should establish break times and take those breaks as soon as you can.

When you eat, try to eat a well-rounded meal. Even though you’re at work, it’s smart to pack vegetables and fruits, meats, grains, and dairy. Eating a well-rounded meal at work will leave you feeling satiated and energetic. Energy bars and caffeine might help on longer shifts but be cautious that you don’t begin to rely too heavily on them, since they can eventually cause you to crash.

  1. Dress for Comfort

One of the most important things you can do is to dress for comfort. If you know that your clinic or hospital is chilly, wear a long sleeve shirt. If you are always warm, wear your looser scrubs. Find shoes that fit and support you throughout the shift, because there is nothing worse than getting halfway through the day and finding that your legs or feet ache.

  1. Take Your Breaks

There are many stories of nurses who don’t take their breaks because they’re too busy or too overwhelmed. It’s better for you and everyone around you if you’re taking the breaks you need at reasonable times. Of course, there will be days when emergencies take precedent or when you can’t get a break at the time you had planned. Whenever possible, though, make sure you’re taking your full break. Don’t rush through your meal or skip a nap thinking that doing so will help you get more done, because the reality is that you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. Prepare healthy snacks in advance to avoid sugary items that may lead to a sugar crash.

Remember, if you skimp on breaks, you could exhaust yourself quickly and find that it’s difficult to complete your shift without getting tired, anxious, and stressed.

  1. Exercise

Exercise will be beneficial to you as an RN before, during, or after your shift. For example, when you work out before a shift, you’re releasing endorphins and other feel-good chemicals. This will boost your mood and may make it easier to get through challenging moments at work.

During a difficult shift, you might consider exercising on your break. Some people exercise if they start to feel tired, because doing so can help engage your brain and wake up your body. Exercise is great for your cardiovascular system, so if you’re feeling drowsy, a short jog or a few push-ups may help.

After you’re done with work, consider exercising before bed to release stress from your long word day. Incorporating exercise into your daily routine will reduce your stress levels and increase your endurance, equipping you to better handle grueling, twelve-hour shifts.

  1. Find Constructive Ways to Keep Busy

During a long shift, time flies when you’re constantly busy. When things slow down, it becomes more difficult to stay focused and awake. Think about some constructive ways to stay busy if you are experiencing a lull at work. Anything from checking on a patient who could use extra attention to getting a coworker a cup of coffee may make the time pass faster and get you through the shift more easily than expected.

  1. Don’t rely on caffeine

Although caffeine may help if you’re feeling drowsy or less energetic at the end of a long shift, it can also make you jittery and anxious. If you need to rest, try to get a normal break and to take a short nap or eat a healthy meal. A small cup of coffee may help, but you need to make sure that it is balanced with rest and good nutrition.

  1. Find Routine at Work

Build a routine at work to help time go faster. If you get into a rhythm, the day will seem to go faster, and you’ll get more done. For instance, if you see a new patient every 15 minutes, develop the habit of writing your patient notes in between appointments. Drink some water and sit down between patients. Sitting down between appointments, completing a short meditation after a stressful patient, or completing a stretching routine once an hour can also be ways of creating a routine that keeps you healthier, more motivated, and better prepared to deal with anything work throws your way. A good routine reduces stress and helps you stay focused.

  1. Make Sleep a Priority

Finally, prioritize getting enough rest. This is vital not only to patient safety, but your own as well. If you get an hour break on a long shift, consider napping for at least part of it to refuel. If you get home after a long day, don’t delay getting to sleep because you get home at an odd time. Your body needs rest, and it may need more than you expect after a particularly challenging and stressful day. Remember, sleep plays a role in the repair of your heart and blood vessels, and it has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, and other illnesses.

A nursing career is often difficult, but it is rewarding. Learning to manage your longer shifts can help as you work toward a more regular schedule. A nursing degree gives you the opportunity to work in a variety of facilities and health care institutions, so managing your stress level and health will help you be prepared to move forward in your career no matter where it takes you.

If you are interested in learning more about earning your nursing degree online from Pacific College of Health and Science, visit admissions or contact us today.

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Caroline Ortiz

Caroline E. Ortiz is a board-certified nurse coach and an associate professor in the Pacific College of Health and Science’s Holistic Nursing Programs. She has developed holistic health programs for healthcare providers and general audiences, participated in clinical research of integrative medicine, and created a Spanish-language guided meditation library for Health Journeys. She is active with the National Association of Hispanic Nurses-NY Chapter and the Integrative Health Project’s work in Guatemala. Caroline is also a curandera (f., traditional healer) apprentice and curanderismo (traditional medicine of Mesoamerican roots) researcher.

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