I exercise, eat right, and rarely lose sleep. There are only so many energy dollars at the start of each day, and I try not to spend them all in one place. There is rarely a reserve and no more all-nighters. While my body hasn’t betrayed me yet, there are trust issues. I simply can’t make it run forever.
Life was different in my twenties. It wasn’t uncommon to work twelve hour shifts, days and nights, and doubles. I remember going to work in pitch darkness, working a double, and leaving in pitch darkness. Exhaustion seemed optional. If I stayed up long enough I eventually saw black circles around my eyes, sure, but a few hours sleep and some coffee usually remedied that.
Knowing this it astonishes me that nurses my age are working the hours they work. Working double shifts seems especially unsafe. Physical fatigue turns to mental fatigue, and a tired mind is more likely to make mistakes.
A study of male construction workers working double shifts shows that sleepiness and mental fatigue increased over the course of several days of double shifts. Instead of eight and a half hours’ sleep, they averaged 5.5 hours. Complaints included not enough sleep, exhaustion, and pain symptoms. Construction work, like nursing, is physically demanding and requires concentration. I can’t imagine the nurses fair better over time.
Nursing web sites have tips on how to survive a double shift, such as:
- Limit caffeine - it contributes to the jitters and only helps in the short term.
- Eat right - eat plenty of protein to keep your brain working and avoid foods that tend to make you sleepy. Spread your meals out into small snacks.
- Keep moving - offer to help coworkers, do hourly rounding, catch up on documentation, etc.
Laboratory techs, too, are exposed to the same exhaustion risks from longer shifts, shift work, an occasional double, and call hours. It’s the kind of thing that one doesn’t think about at twenty five but seriously wonders about thirty years later. I’m sure some techs decide it isn’t worth it.
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