HealthNurse PractitionerPhysician Assistant

As an nurse practitioner or physician assistant, there are an endless number of scheduling possibilities that allow you to create the lifestyle that best fits your needs. Of course, you may be able to choose the traditional five-day a week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. But for others in health care, an unconventional schedule is best — if you’re looking to save on childcare, for example, working weekends and leaving your spouse in charge of the kids may be best for you.

At some point in your career you will be faced with the choice of working these unusual schedules. One of those schedules is choosing to work at night. While there are pros and cons to this shift, be aware that health researchers have found definite negative effects of night shifts on the health of employees.

Working the night shift as a nurse practitioner or physician assistant has serious disadvantages, including interfering with the circadian rhythms of the body, which are based on sleeping at night and remaining awake during the day. Most people have to adjust their lifestyles to be able to stay alert during the night while being able to sleep comfortably during the day. The National Sleep Foundation says that according to the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders, those who work in shifts are at a greater risk for several serious conditions, such as diabetes, ulcers, cardiovascular disease and depression.

“The problem is when I try to squeeze normal day person things into that AM sleep time,” says one physician assistant. “I had to do this after my last string of nights and I felt very unwell. Had some mild visual hallucinations, gaps in memory, even some speech disturbances. So I really try not to do that.”

Another disadvantage of working overnight that is not as obvious: social life. According to several studies, nurse practitioners and physician assistants who work at night report that their work shift influences the quality of their interaction with their family and friends. Night shift workers who suffer from sleep and health disturbances find it difficult to fulfill their family responsibilities and also spend lesser time with their children and spouses. Working the night shift also reduces social interactions and may lead to an unhealthy sense of isolation.

“It can be difficult to find time to spend with my friends and family,” says one nurse practitioner who works at night. “I’m alone a lot of during the day. It’s nice sometimes but gets old after awhile.”

“Most of my friends are other NPs who work the same shift,” says another. “Try dating when you’re working at night and everyone else works days.”

So knowing all the pitfalls, are there any advantages of working overnight? Yes, two very important ones.

1. Convenience. Working a day shift means you put off certain personal tasks to the late evening hours or the weekend. If you work the night shift though, you get to complete your tasks like grocery shopping, for example, during off-peak hours and save time. Moreover, when you work the night shift, it’s easier for you to attend a meeting at your child’s school or a visit to your bank.

2. Financial. Often nurse practitioners and physician assistants get paid more working the night shift as compared to the day shift. If you have the ability to sleep during the day, then you don’t need to spend money on a baby sitter for your children when they get home from school. Assuming your spouse works the day shift, you can manage the kids without outside help, which reduces your expenses, making the night shift even more financially beneficial.

In order to benefit from these two advantages, you have to stay healthy. Here are some of tips.

1. Sleep. A common problem with working night shift is the risk of developing a sleep disorder. Sleeping during the day can often lead to a disrupted rest — not only because your body isn’t naturally programmed to sleep then but also because of daytime distractions. Try and recreate a night-time atmosphere. Make sure your room is as dark as possible, turn your phone off. Use an eye mask and earplugs if it tends to get noisy where you usually rest.

2. Exercise. Exercising regularly helps your overall health. Get into a regular routine and stick to it. If you tend to feel exhausted after finishing your night shift, schedule your workouts in before your shift. Sticking to a set amount of workouts will help your energy levels, sleep habits and mental health. On days where you’re not able workout in, remain active. Instead of sitting down for long periods of time, try standing. Take the stairs at work and walk up and down them a few times during your shift. Include squats or stretches when you have a chance. Minor things can make a difference and help you sleep better.

3. Eat healthy. If you are tired, you may be more likely to reach for unhealthy options because it feels easier. Make sure you have healthy foods readily available, both at home and at work. Preparing all of your healthy meals before working night shift is the key to staying healthy. Meal prepping can be a cost-effective and easy way to make sure that you have all the meals ready that you need. The last thing you want to be doing is cooking when you are tired and hungry after working night shift so try to cook as much as you can beforehand. Don’t go to the vending machine at work. Bring your own food to work! Snacking on something healthy every few hours can help keep your metabolism going and help you feel full without overdoing it.

4. Stick to a eating schedule. Studies show your digestion slows down during the night so, if possible, try to maintain normal eating hours on the days that you’re working night shift. Eating too much during night hours can contribute to weight gain and poor sleep. Don’t use your night shift as a time to eat massive meals. Try eating breakfast as soon as you get home, lunch when you wake up and dinner before you start work. Pack healthy snacks (with some protein in them) to take with you so you have energy for your night shift.

5. Cut down the caffeine. Too much coffee and energy drinks, especially throughout the night, are not great for your health. Energy drinks are often filled with sugar. Replace them with natural energy-rich foods, such as an apple. If you drink coffee, try to limit it to one per shift. Also, drink it four to five hours before your shift is due to end, as caffeine stays in your system for a long time and you may find it hard to sleep when you get home.

6. Monitor your health. Just because you are a medical professional, doesn’t mean that you are an expert on your own health. Visit you doctor regularly.