Healthcare isn't a 9-to-5 job. It's an around-the-clock profession, and working evening or night hours is a way of life for many health professionals. Such shifts can take a physical and emotional toll on workers, experts say, but there are ways to prevent the damage. Here are suggestions for surviving -- and even thriving -- despite a draining schedule.
Understand You're Not Alone
About 26 percent of the US workforce regularly works a shift where the majority of their hours are between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., says Janie O'Connor, MEd, president of Shiftworker.com in St. Paul. "Shiftworkers need to relate to that demographic," she says. "They need to accept their lifestyle as it is and refrain from acting like a day worker when they're not."
Protect Your Sleep
Shiftworkers must protect their daytime sleep at all costs, O'Connor says. "Do not respond to any other calls on your time, like the telephone, the doorbell or a relative who asks you to do something because she thinks you're just napping." Sleep deprivation leads to chronic fatigue, she says. Shiftworkers must constantly remind family and friends that sleep is a priority during the day.
Snooze on the Job
Napping is an effective "fatigue countermeasure" for people who aren't able to get enough sleep in one uninterrupted stretch, says Ed Coburn, publisher of Working Nights newsletter and a consultant at Circadian Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A nap lasting 15 to 25 minutes will have a significant impact on a worker's alertness, he says. The challenge: finding a quiet, comfortable, dimly lit place to catch those Z's during a break.
Take Care of Your Body
Lots of workers use caffeine or sugar as pick-me-ups, Coburn says. Caffeine is an effective fatigue countermeasure, but it takes 20 to 35 minutes to improve a person's alertness, and its effect may then last seven hours or more, he says. Some workers get hyped on caffeine and then go home and sedate themselves with a few beers to help them fall asleep. "Alcohol can help people fall asleep, but it will interfere with the quality of sleep," he says, adding that the effects of the alcohol wear off before the caffeine, and the caffeine will further interfere with sleep quality.
Sugar isn't a long-term answer to fatigue either, Coburn says. "A Snickers can give you added energy but you burn through it very quickly," he says. "After the initial sugar high, your energy level drops below the level at which you started."
Coburn says it's easy to overdo it with either sugar or coffee. "If you drink too much coffee, you can get very jittery, and if you eat too many candy bars, you end up gaining a lot of weight," he says.
Don't Isolate Yourself
Shiftworkers often tell O'Connor that they feel "out of the loop" with what's going on in their families' and friends' lives. "It's very much a day-oriented society," she says. Shiftworkers must work extra hard to maintain relationships when their schedules don't match the schedules of their loved ones.
Even if it's not face-to-face, constant communication is essential, Coburn adds. Beepers and cell phones help family members know "you're not out of touch," he says. Families can keep bulletin boards at home where parents and kids post notes and responses. And couples can plan dates at the end of long work stretches. "It's important to have something to look forward to," Coburn notes.