- 15 July 2019
- 15 min read
How to survive 12 hour shifts
The long shifts can be exhausting, physically and mentally. RMN Chloe shares what she does to ensure she gets through her 12-hour shifts efficiently!
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Without further ado, we're gonna jump into this month's video which is all about how to survive 12-hour shifts - or if you're like me, my long days are actually 12 and a half hour shifts.
If you’re new around here, I am a mental health nurse; I'm pretty newly qualified, I've been qualified about nine months now and I work on a ward.
My normal shift pattern is two long days a week and then two short days a week, or if I'm on nights I'll do either three or four nights a week, all of which will be twelve and a half hours long.
I have actually done a whole video on how to survive night shifts, if you want to see that video I will link it up there!
But today we're gonna talk about how to survive sort of twelve and a half hour shifts in general because they're pretty intense.
So, with all that said I'm gonna stop rambling and just jump straight into the tips!
Get a good night’s sleep beforehand
Now the first thing I'm gonna suggest might seem pretty obvious, however, it's something that's easy to forget and that is to get a good night's sleep.
It seems obvious I know, but I think a lot of people forget how early they're getting up.
So, for me to get up for a long day I need to be up at half past five, which means I need to be asleep by half nine if I'm gonna get a full eight hours sleep, so realistically, I need to be getting into bed at about nine o'clock to make sure that I'm asleep for half nine to get the hours I need.
But, let's be honest, it is so easy to get distracted and the next thing you know it's like 10 half-10 and you're like ‘oh my god, my alarm goes off at 5:30, I'm gonna be exhausted!’
So that's definitely a really important piece of advice, especially if you're new to doing 12 and a half hour shifts.
It just makes sure you give yourself enough time to get the amount of sleep you need, so if it takes you half an hour to get ready for bed then you need to start that process at half eight to make sure you're in bed for nine and asleep for half nine.
You've just got to work out what works best for you, but getting into a routine is gonna really really help you out.
Maintain good sleep hygiene
Something else that's really important for sleep, and it's something we tell patients all the time, and that is good sleep hygiene.
If you haven't heard that phrase before it's all about getting into the habit of doing things that are gonna help you sleep, not things that are gonna keep you awake.
So the best things for this are to avoid caffeine as much as possible before bed - so for me personally, I try and avoid caffeine after about 4p.m., easier said than done at times but avoiding caffeine for those few hours before you go to bed is gonna really really help you get a good night's sleep.
Also, avoiding screen time as well phones, laptops, TVs; they all emit blue light which messes with your body's circadian rhythms, which is kind of like your natural sleep-wake cycle, so if you're laying in bed looking at your phone for half an hour and then wondering why you can't fall asleep it's probably that.
Another thing that's really important for good sleep hygiene is to follow a pattern.
You always need to train your body into falling asleep earlier, and one of the best ways of doing this is to avoid lie-ins.
Now, I know some of you probably aren't gonna want to hear that, but if you have a lie-in it will knock your whole sleep pattern out because then you're gonna struggle to fall asleep early that evening, meaning you're not gonna get enough sleep that night and you’ll get up early the next day and be really tired at work.
So, although sometimes it could be super tempting to have a lie-in if you've got a day off, it isn't gonna help you in the long run, in fact it's gonna make you sleep worse which is gonna make you even more tired.
There's obviously loads of ways that you can have good sleep hygiene but those for me are the three most important things - avoiding caffeine, avoiding screens and trying to get into some kind of routine, which is difficult when you work shifts, I know it is.
You've got earlys, lates, long days, nights; it's really really hard to get into a routine, but if you're super tired getting an early night it's gonna be much better for your sleep pattern than having a lie-in.
Prepare your meals for the week
Meal prep is another thing that is super important.
If you're doing long days on the ward it's so easy to end up eating absolute rubbish when you're working a 12 and a half hour shift and then, I don't know about you guys, but when I eat rubbish I tend to feel pretty rubbish as well.
In my locker at work I like to keep a stash of reasonably healthy foods, so I've got a few mug shots in there, cereal bars, granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, all those kind of things.
I've got a stash of those in my locker so if I'm getting hungry I've got some reasonably healthy things on hand that I can use to curb my appetite.
If I'm doing a twelve and a half hour shift I usually like to take at least one proper meal with me because think a lot of nurses are guilty of just snacking throughout their shifts and not eating an actual meal.
This is something that I'll try to do in bulk, so if I'm working two long days back-to-back, the night before I might try and make a big portion of something and they're just split up into two Tupperware's to take it with me each day.
Sometimes I'll even take leftovers from the night before, so I'll quite often take like chicken, veg and some potatoes and just have that in a pot so I could microwave it at work.
At least that way you know you're gonna get one proper meal while you’re at work. I also try and plan what I'm gonna eat after twelve and a half hour shifts because otherwise you just end up eating rubbish because you get home, you haven't really eaten much all day you're super hungry and you just binge on all the bad food.
So again, this is where meal prep is really handy - I like to make big portions of curry, chilli, soup, cottage pie all the things like that freeze really easily.
I'll make them in big batches, freeze them in individual plastic containers and then I'll take them out of the freezer the night before so that when I get home from a long day all I need to do is heat it up or throw it in the oven.
Plus, if I've defrosted something I'm much more likely to eat that rather than just being really lazy and taking some of and chips out the freezer because I'm not gonna want to waste the food that I've defrosted.
So, having healthy snacks on hand and meal prep are gonna be your best friend if you're working long days. I also try, where possible, to take some fresh healthy snacks with me.
So something like vegetable sticks or fruit, that's really easy to eat, like apple slices, grapes; basically anything that you can sit and munch while you're doing something else because quite often that's when people snack, when they're typing up their notes or writing up an assessment, you know sat at a computer doing some work.
If there's cake in the nursing office you’re gonna sit in eat the cake, but at least if you've got something like grapes, carrot sticks or celery sticks with you, you can have a slightly healthier snack.
That doesn't mean you can't have some cake every now and again because, I mean, I love cake and it is one of the perks of nursing is that you quite often have yummy snacks in the nursing office, but too much of them is just gonna leave you feeling rubbish.
Drink a lot of water to keep yourself hydrated
Along the same lines, drink plenty of water.
Again, I know you guys know this, but it's something that can be so easily forgotten when you're really busy and hectic on the wards. You're making sure your patients have had something to drink and noting ‘Mr. Smith hasn't had a drink since 10:00am’, when you haven't had a drink at all that day!
I used to have one of those big like clear water bottles where it's got like the marks down the side where it says like 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m. - I really need to buy a new one because my one broke but those are so handy for when you're at work, because if you fall behind with your water you know say you are really busy for an hour or two and you fall behind you can really easily see that you haven't drunk enough water today and it reminds you to catch up rather than just getting to the end of your shift and thinking ‘why on earth have I got this ridiculous headache? Oh wait, I haven't drunk anything today’.
Having a water bottle on hand, especially one that's got the marks down the side, is gonna really help keep you hydrated and again just stop feeling like rubbish. 12 and a half hour shifts are hard enough, let alone when you're hungry and thirsty.
How can you look after your patients properly if you yourself are feeling like absolute rubbish?
I am a firm believer that you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.
Make sure you take your breaks
Speaking of taking care of yourself, take your breaks!
Take your breaks, do it, take a break now! I know that is easier said than done.
I personally work on a ward that is normally very busy and quite often we only work on one qualified nurse which does make it really hard to take a break, but you're not doing yourself any favours by working 12 and 1/2 hours straight.
Even if your shift is a complete chaos and you can't take your full hour's break, just try and take a quick 15-20 minutes, it's not ideal but it's better than nothing. In fact, what I quite often do when I'm the nurse in charge, I give myself two half an hour breaks rather than giving myself a full hour break because actually stepping away from the ward when you're the only qualified for a whole hour can be quite a difficult thing to do because people are gonna need you during that time, whether that be patients, support workers, doctors.
Someone is bound to need you in an hour's time but at least if you split that up into two half an hour's, it's a lot more manageable for you to be away from the ward.
Plus, you'll likely find that you are a lot more efficient if you've actually had a break.
You might think ‘I've got loads to do, I don't have time to take a break’ but I sometimes find sitting down, having a chat with a friend, getting a bit of fresh air, even just sitting and drinking a cup of tea in peace, whatever it is I tend to find that I'm a lot more efficient once I've done that than I am if I don't take a break at all.
And if you are a student nurse watching this, there is absolutely no excuse for you to not be taking your breaks.
You are supernumerary, and don't let people forget that it's really important for you to get into the habit of taking breaks when you're a student because then you're much more likely to continue that habit as a qualified nurse, and some wards I've noticed there's almost like a culture of not taking your breaks among nurses.
If you work on a ward like that, be a trendsetter, change the way it is done, be the person that says, ‘actually, no - we should be taking breaks’.
Don't just follow the culture of not taking breaks because that's what everyone else does, not taking your breaks doesn't make you a good nurse at all.
I can appreciate that you're probably really dedicated to your job but actually taking breaks is really important and you're not a bad nurse for wanting to take a break from the ward.
If you work for the NHS you're also not being paid for it so you deserve that hour.
Try and leave work on time
Speaking of breaks, another really important thing is to try and get out on time.
Again, I know it's not always possible you are gonna have shifts when you just physically can't leave on time, but as much as possible you should really try and leave on time.
Twelve and a half hour shifts are long enough, don't make it any longer for yourself.
The best way to try and avoid this is to not leave everything to the last minute.
Let's be honest, that last hour or so of your shift is always gonna be busy.
You've got handover, to write notes, to do incident reports, to do various things, to document, you know you've got a lot to do towards the end of your shift.
So make life a little bit easier for yourself - don't leave all of your incident reports to the end of the shift try and get them done as and when throughout the day, don't wait until 6:30pm to start writing your hand over.
What I normally do is, sort of mid-afternoon, I'll start my handover then so I'll put in what's happened in the morning and then that way all I've got to do is just add in what's happened that afternoon and evening so I'm not rushing to write a whole day's handover.
The thing is each of these jobs might not take you very long, I mean I can bash out a day text in record time now, but although you don't think they're gonna take you very long you need to be prepared for the fact that you will probably get interrupted.
It's always the way, that when you've got incident reports to write, all your notes to do and handover, that is when several people will phone and it will be incredibly urgent and they can only speak to you.
Several patients will need your attention, another ward will borrow one of your staff which means you're having to cover obs, you can guarantee if you leave things to the last minute everything will go wrong and you won't have time to do it all.
So, just don't do it to yourself.
Plan ahead, get things done as soon as possible, don't leave things to the last minute!
Leave work at work
My final piece of advice on how to survive at 12 hour shifts is to leave work at work.
Again, I know this isn't always going to be possible and if it is something you're struggling with then I would definitely recommend speaking to your supervisor about this.
If you're going home thinking about your day, you're not gonna be getting a good night's sleep, you're not gonna be feeling relaxed, you're not gonna be feeling like you stepped away from work and coming back feeling fresh the next day.
You're just gonna make things more difficult for yourself.
There's always gonna be the odd day when you've dealt with something really difficult, you've had a really challenging day and you might take it home a little bit, but as much as possible try and get into the habit of consciously thinking as you walk out the door ‘right, I am done for the day’.
I quite often do this in my car because I drive, as soon as I get in my car I'll do a quick 30 seconds, saying ‘of course that wasn't great today, but I handled that really well, that could have been better but I did the best I could in this circumstance’ and I'll do a quick little mini breakdown of my day and then that's it, I drive home.
I've switched it off, I've dealt with it all and then I'm not laying in bed that night going ‘oh god, why did you do that?’ when I should be sleeping and getting ready for my next shift.
So, if you're someone that really struggles to leave work at work, definitely discuss it in your supervision and get into the habit of just consciously leaving work at work.
So those are just a few of my tips for surviving 12-hour shifts because they are difficult, let's be honest, but I know for a fact that I wouldn't change my job for the world.
I love being a nurse.
If that means having to put up with 12 and a half hour shifts then I will do it!
If you guys have any more tips I would love to hear them, leave them in the comments down below, I'm sure you guys are bound to have suggestions I've never even thought of before!
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