Night Shift Nurses: They Keep the Torch Burning

Portrait of a Latin American nurse looking at the results of a medical exam at night on a tablet - healthcare and medicine concepts

It finally happened — you graduated nursing school, passed the NCLEX,1 and got your registered nurse (RN) license. You are on your way to your first nursing job, but what does working the night shift mean?

Hospital and healthcare facilities usually operate 24/7 because patients need care around the clock. Staff must be available for alternative schedules to care for patients regardless of the time of day or night.

Read on for night shift nurse essentials, some tips for night shift nursing, and what to expect when working the night shift.

In This Article:

Pros of Night Shift Nursing

Night shift nurses often develop strong teamwork and problem-solving skills as they navigate the challenges of the night shift.2 Here are three reasons why the night shift might be your preference:

1. Quieter and fewer distractions: At night, reduced noise and fewer distractions can create a more peaceful and focused work atmosphere, allowing more personalized patient care. With reduced patient and visitor activity, night shift nurses may have increased opportunities for patient care and learning.

2. Differential pay: Many healthcare facilities offer shift differentials or higher pay rates for night shifts, paying a few dollars more per hour or an added percentage on top of your regular hourly pay.2 The financial incentives for working a non-traditional schedule may be an added benefit.

3. Enhanced camaraderie: The shared experience of nurses working night shifts can create a sense of unity around the nature of night shift nursing.

Cons of Night Shift Nursing

Night shift nursing also has its share of challenges, including disrupted sleep, which can lead to fatigue. Nurses working the night shift can face struggles with daytime and social schedules because they work while the rest of the world sleeps, which can impact their overall well-being and mental health. Here are some ways to help minimize the challenges:

1. Disrupted sleep patterns: Working at night can lead to irregular circadian rhythms, called shift work sleep disorder (SWSD).3 Sticking with a consistent routine can help minimize disruptions due to irregular sleep schedules, reducing fatigue and other health problems.4

2. Social isolation: Night shifts may limit social interactions with family and friends who work regular hours. Be proactive about how you spend your time off.

3. Limited support services: Fewer ancillary services and administrative supports are available during the night, making some tasks more challenging. Reach out to your manager to identify support for the night shift.

4. Higher patient-to-nurse ratio: Depending on the unit, night shift nurses may care for more patients. Turn to the more experienced nurses working the night shift for tips on managing your patient load, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

5. Potential for burnout: The demanding nature of night shifts, as well as irregular sleeping and waking hours, can contribute to nurse burnout over time. Make self-care and sleep a priority between night shifts and on your days off. 

Tips for Night Shift Nursing

The night shift may not be the most natural of human states, but there are several ways to improve it and support your body and mind while working the night shift.5 Here are just a few:

Prioritize Nutrition and Energy Management

Healthy eating habits are vital in sustaining your energy on the night shift. It may be beneficial to plan your meals for your shift. You may or may not have the option to order food during the night shift, so you might have to bring your meals with you. Packing your meals may create more planning up front, which may lead to healthier food choices. Also, avoiding excessive caffeine consumption near the end of your shift can help you get a good day’s sleep.

Establish a Consistent Sleep Routine

Sleep routines are the most important way to stay healthy and alert for the night shift. Try to go to bed soon after your shift, avoiding daylight if possible. Create a dark, quiet sleep environment and try out relaxation techniques to improve sleep quality. Consider using blackout shades, an eye mask and a white noise machine, and be sure you have a reliable alarm clock. Let your family or roommates know your sleep schedule to avoid unnecessary interruptions during the day.2

To decide on your sleep schedule, consider that some nurses prefer to alter their sleep schedule only when working and return to a regular daytime routine when off.

Practice Self-Care

Keep physical exercise as part of your routine, especially on the night shift. If you can’t find time for exercise before or after a shift, try to take a walk during your work breaks and commit to exercising on your days off. Find activities that promote relaxation and relieve stress. Creating and sticking to a routine schedule is the key to making the night shift work for you.

Night Shift Nurse Essentials

These essentials can help night shift nurses navigate the unique challenges of alternative schedules, ensuring that they can provide patients with quality care while prioritizing their own health and comfort.

1. Comfortable and supportive footwear: Day or night, nurses spend long hours on their feet, moving from one patient to another. Wearing comfortable and supportive footwear is essential to prevent fatigue and discomfort. High-quality nursing shoes with proper arch support, cushioning and a slip-resistant sole are crucial.

2. Organizational tools: Nurses should have essential tools to stay organized and efficiently manage their time and tasks on the night shift. A well-organized nursing bag or pouch with compartments for pens, notepads, a stethoscope, a penlight and other necessary tools can make time spent with patients more efficient. A wristwatch with a luminous dial or backlight is also helpful for keeping track of time in low-light conditions.

3. Healthy snacks and hydration: It is crucial that you maintain your energy levels and stay alert during the night shift. Have a supply of healthy snacks and stay well hydrated throughout the shift. Snacks like nuts, granola bars and fresh fruits can provide an energy boost, and a reusable water bottle makes hydrating easy during the night hours.

Night Shift Nursing for the Win

Not only does the nursing night shift come with all the benefits of being a nurse, these nurses are also the backbone of a 24/7 healthcare system. Nurses working night shifts may make more money doing so. By sticking to a routine for sleep, meals, and social and family activities, the night shift may be the best shift for nurses looking for a better work-life balance.

Begin your nursing career with Grand Canyon University’s accelerated ABSN program. You can be on your way in as few as 16 months.6 Complete the form on this page to learn more. 

1 National Council of State Boards of Nursing. (n.d.). Home [NCLEX]. Retrieved Dec. 26, 2023. 

2 American Nurses Association. (n.d.). Tips for Surviving the Night Shift in Nursing. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2023. 

Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Shift Work Sleep Disorder. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2023. 

4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2020, March 31). Module 9: Work Hour Training for Nurses - Long Hours - NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topic. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2023. 

5 (n.d.). 10 Tips for Surviving the Night Shift as a Nurse. Retrieved Dec. 23, 2023. 

6 Secondary applicants must transfer a minimum of 60 of the required 123 credits or have completed a baccalaureate degree which includes nine prerequisite courses/labs and 10 general education courses prior to starting the core nursing courses, which can be completed in as few as 16 months. Direct entry applicants that do not transfer 60 credits but meet the minimum requirements can complete these credits through GCU prior to starting the core nursing courses. Depending on the state where student has enrolled or intends to complete the program, student may require additional courses. This may include, but is not limited to, additional general education courses, courses in the major, clinical courses or a different course sequence. See University Policy Handbook.

Approved by the dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions on Feb. 26, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.