Residency Survival Guide: Surviving the night shift

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The birds are chirping and the sky is brightening from black to blue. It’s your first of many 12-hour shifts. How do you do it? Here are tips from those who have been there.

1. Do: Keep to your regular programming schedule

Think about your shift the same way you think about a day at work. Eat full meals at regular intervals and have lunch midway through your shift. Drink coffee at the beginning of your shift instead of the end, and remember, you need as much water at night as you do during the day if you’re on your feet. Staying hydrated improves concentration, mood, and blood pressure.

It’s normal if you can’t fall asleep naturally. After all, the night shift isn’t natural. During the day, wear a sleep mask and ear plugs to help block out noise and sunlight. The day before your first night shift, sleep in as late as you can. Some residents recommend taking a power nap before starting your shift.

2. Don’t: Go to bed angry

It’s hard enough to get to sleep; avoid unpleasant interactions that will keep you up. A cardiologist on Twitter notes she used to answer her night calls with “what’s the emergency?” until she needed an on-call pediatrician for her child and he responded with: “How can I help?” The nights are hard for everybody, but the sun always rises. Be nice, even if you have to fake it.

3. Do: Double check yourself

Fatigue impairs decision making and increases risk tolerance. Double-check any critical decisions or calculations you’re making during the night shift, especially during periods where you feel yourself fading. Work out a schedule with your team that covers everyone’s breaks. If you need to close your eyes during your break, find a dark space away from the activity in the wards. A 15-to-20 minute nap can significantly improve your alertness and responsiveness. Just remember to set an alarm!

4. Don’t: Let your nutrition go

Love Kit Kats and McDonald’s? Join the club. When your self-care trips to the vending machine become a nightly routine, it’s no longer a treat. Don’t let the exception become the rule. Night-shift calories count as much as daytime calories and it can increase your risk of impaired glucose tolerance and cardiovascular disease. Bring plenty of chopped veggies to satisfy your urge to chew instead. You’ll feel much more energized and clear.

5. Do: Dress comfortably

Get yourself some night-shift gear and wear it like a uniform. You’ll be comfortable and you’ll look professional, too. Hospitals feel coldest in the middle of the night. The wool will help with that. Wear whatever it takes to keep you warm. After standing and walking for 12 hours, you’ll feel swelling and aching in your legs. The compression socks will help with that. Ask anyone who stands for a significant amount of time and they’ll tell you how essential compression socks are.

Survival guide tip

When camping in the woods, it is vital to store your food away from scavenging animals. Hanging a barrel of provisions 20 feet in the air takes a lot of effort. It’s actually pretty easy to bring leftovers in a Tupperware to work.