Working as a nurse has multiple rewards, from the knowledge you’re helping fellow humans to have the security of a steady income, but it isn’t always an easy job. Nurses have to be alert for the duration of long shifts – sometimes extending to twelve hours or more – peppered with occurrences that require they be refreshed and able to think clearly. Whether it’s making sure a patient receives the right medication or responding to emergencies, it’s crucial a nurse can be reliable and attentive regardless of how long they’ve been on the clock. With increased workloads, hospitals filled to capacity and stress being piled onto key workers, it’s never been more important for nurses to be at their very best every shift no matter how long it lasts. Here are Top Tips For Nurses to Stay Alert During Long Shifts, focused on the benefits of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and dedicated focus at work.
Sleep is Crucial
First and foremost, you need to sleep enough. Without adequate rest, your mind won’t function correctly and anything else you use to remain alert can be hindered by poor rest; slapping a bandaid on a gaping wound might hold a little while, but sooner or later it’s going to peel. In a stressful, fast-paced career like nursing, you need to be able to demonstrate fast reflexes, critical thinking and a high level of self-efficiency that even mild sleep deprivation can hinder.
To prevent the other suggestions in this article being in vain, be sure to get the recommended amount of sleep for an adult – between 6 to 8 hours – before each shift. Try to develop a sleep schedule where possible that persists even into personal days. While having flexibility of start and end points of this schedule will be important in shift work and when on-call, consistent sleep schedules and routines are the key to waking up refreshed, alert and ready to undertake the new challenges each day of nursing will bring.
Don’t Rely On Caffeinate
Sometimes, even despite our best efforts, we still don’t get enough sleep. In these instances, it’s tempting to reach for that large coffee or favoured energy drink enhanced by sugar, but a nurse should reconsider relying on a caffeine “buzz” to outlast a long shift. Not only is caffeine a poor stimulant – it’s effects only last an hour or two, depending on individual metabolism – but most of these products marketed at hard-working professionals looking for a quick fix contain high levels of added sugar. These are bad for your health when used long-term for energy boosts, as frequent consumption raises the risk of developing type-two diabetes or heart disease, and makes reliance on these drinks detrimental to your health as a whole.
“A coffee or protein shake may provide a temporary boost to energy levels, but you’ll experience a ‘crash’ once the initial effect wears off. It’s better to maintain good, general health over trying to bolster your abilities with short-term stimulants,” recommends Avis Montagna, a wellness writer for Paper Fellows.
Instead, consume plenty of uncaffeinated drinks – green tea, decaf varieties of your favourite tea or coffee without added sugar – and mostly, drink water. If you’re struggling without a hit of caffeine but need to stay alert on-shift, step outside and let fresh air stimulate your brain, splash cold water on your face and eyes or sip some cold water. All of these quick and easy methods will boost your energy and alertness in a pinch.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate!
As mentioned in the previous point, it’s important to stay hydrated. Caffeine is a dehydrant, and drinks that contain a lot of sugar and additives cause frequent urination, both of which counter any attempts to rehydrate. Your body consists of seventy percent water, and you will lose a substantial amount of that through perspiration and respiration in physically demanding jobs.
The occasional sugar-free alternative is fine, but there is no substitute for water when it comes to remaining hydrated. The benefit of regularly scheduled rehydrating breaks include improved cognition, a long-term increase in energy levels compared to the caffeine “boost”, no crash to contend with and an improved resistance to fatigue. Even if you’re not thirsty, stopping to drink a glass of water will keep you focused and energised all day and night.
Take Your Break Late
While breaks are important, the timing can make or break a shift. Having your break too early leaves you prone to burning out, clock-watching the last hours of a grueling shift, raising stress and reducing focus. Take it too late, and you’ll already have surpassed your limit, resulting in poor relaxation and an inability to switch off from work.
Try to take a break in the last third of your allotted shift and focus on a leisure activity; watch an episode of a favourite show, listen to some music or read a book. It should be something not related to nursing and a hobby you enjoy, giving your mind a chance to refuel and allow you to return to work refreshed and ready for challenges. Remember to hydrate while you’re there!
Get Out and Stretch Out
While you often can’t step out during patient treatments or assessments, when the opportunity arises to take a quick mental break, step outside and get some fresh air. A change of scenery can do wonders for a body beginning to succumb to sluggish monotony or repetitive routines.
It’s easy to fall into the doldrums when stuck inside, surrounded by sick patients and stressed colleagues. Taking a break for a brisk, five-minute walk around the hospital grounds is a great way to recentre your mind and revive energy levels, especially during a night shift.
Taking five minutes to get in a walk around the grounds, stretch aching muscles or even just flex your calves and toes under the table while working at a computer or desk can relieve stiff joint pains, encourage localised blood flow and lead to healthier muscle long-term. The added bonus of fresh air if you can take your exercise outside will also invigorate your mind and replenish blood oxygen levels, encouraging improved overall physical and mental health.
You Are What You Eat
The snack machine has never looked so tempting at 3am, but it’s best to avoid the salty potato chips and sugary snacks glistening within. Loading up on unhealthy foods when you’re trying to stay alert and focused is counterproductive; high sugar foods will provide a short-lived spike in energy that’ll quickly get annulled once back at work, while the high fat and salt content of the savoury choices can lead to dehydration and sluggish digestion. Inevitably, you’ll crash, your ability to focus will go with it and you’ll crave more, health-damaging junk food soon after.
Wherever possible, stick to healthy alternatives; complex carbohydrates like oatmeal and brown or wholegrain bread, pasta and rice will release energy slowly over your shift, while lean meat, fruit and vegetables provide macronutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs to function correctly amd bolstering your attentiveness without extra effort. If your canteen or vending machines can’t effectively cater to your needs, bring in pasta salads, roast chicken salad sandwiches or soups and stews made with plenty of vegetables from home instead, which will both save you money on buying convenience foods and avoid the trap of premade meals filled with sugar or fat.
Get Your Blood Pumping
As a nurse, you’re likely aware of the benefits of regular exercise in daily life. Maintaining even a simple fitness regime means less risk of obesity and comorbid disorders, better mental health, less risk of chronic disease and improved gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health. It’s recommended individuals aim for thirty minutes of exercise a day for or five days in a week and this is especially important for anyone in a physically taxing job.
In the workplace, you can benefit from an active lifestyle through increased endurance, more durable response to overexertion and stress, increased mental capacity and improved blood flow that allows faster reaction times. You’ll also benefit from increased strength, lowered risks of workplace injury, and improved mental and physical health overall.
Staying Alert Can Be Easy
Becoming a nurse is a taxing journey, but being one is even harder. Juggling a multitude of patient needs, responsibilities and self-care are difficult but integrating these tips into your daily routine until they become second nature will take the stress out of remaining alert while working long shifts. You’ll notice an improvement in overall physical and mental health, your ability to focus on work and personal objectives and benefit from increased alertness and critical thinking skills both at work and at home.