Shift Work in Nursing


Published: 17 October 2016

Nursing is a 24-hour-a-day job. People get sick at all hours of the day and night, and they always need someone there to take care of them. When the doctors go home and the other staff are tucked into their beds, night shift nurses are there when the patient’s condition gets worse in the middle of the night, when they have only their wits and their co-workers to count on.

Nursing is not an easy job, and nursing at night or on rotating shifts makes that job even more difficult.

Defining Shift Work

In 2003, over one million Australian’s worked a night shift in the four weeks prior to the questionnaire, according to Zhao and Turner (2008), and 46 per cent had worked a rotating shift. This means the worker had to work different shifts – day, evening or night – in the same schedule. As most nurses are aware, this is a common occurrence.

Health workers make up 32.3 per cent of shift workers in Australia, and nurses make up the largest group of health workers. Like it or not, nurses must work the off-shifts and deal with the problems that come with it. Some of those shifts even include 12 hour overnight shifts.

shift work in nursing

Dangers of Night Shift Work

One of the problems with night shift work is the subjective state of fatigue (Blachowicz & Letizia 2006). This state can lead to problems with how alert you are, how you concentrate, your vigilance, your ability to make judgment calls, your mood and your performance. You may not even know you are fatigued, yet still experience negative side effects from it. Working night shifts can also lead to social isolation since most events take place during the day when these workers are trying to sleep.

It will come as no surprise to night shift workers that they tend to have bad health habits as well, including eating items that are high in fat and sodium, consuming too much caffeine, smoking, and drinking alcohol. All of these can lead to serious health problems.

Tips for Working Shifts

Admi et al. (2008) found that working shifts does not lead to an adverse impact on health, absenteeism or performance when compared to those who claimed adaption to shift work or worked only day shifts. However, since working shifts is an essential part of the nursing profession and is not something that will soon go away, you need to devise some strategies to get your sleep and cope with shift work.

  • For your bedroom, try to make your room as dark as possible by purchasing black-out blinds and shades.
  • Consider making your room colder than the rest of the house, because this can help encourage sleep.
  • Ear plugs and eye masks are also really useful to block sound and light.
  • Let family members know when your sleeping hours are, and set up rules about when you can be disturbed.
  • During your shift, make time for breaks. It is often easy to run the whole shift and ignore your own needs.
  • If you find that you are feeling tired, take a quick exercise break by running up and down the stairs in the fire escape.
  • Caffeine is almost a necessity on night shift, but plan to stop drinking it five hours before you intend to sleep.
  • Try to eat a nutritious meal during your shift, and refrain from drinking alcohol immediately before going to sleep.
  • Admi, H, Tzischinsky, O, Epstein, R, Herer, P & Lavie, P 2008, ‘Shift Work in Nursing: Is it Really a Risk Factor for Nurses’ Health and Patients’ Safety?’, Nursing Economic$, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 250-7, viewed 12 October 2016,
  • Blachowicz, E & Letizia, M 2006, ‘The Challenges of Shift Work’, Medsurg Nursing: Official Journal of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 274-80, viewed 12 October 2016,
  • Zhao, I & Turner, C 2008, ‘The Impact of Shift Work on People’s Daily Health Habits and Adverse Health Outcomes’, Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 8-22, viewed 12 October 2016,…r.pdf