First times

Surviving a night shift

Location: UK
Audience: Junior doctors Medical students
Updated: Thursday 10 November 2022
Topics: Your wellbeing

By Lydia Akinola

I feel like a bit of a fraud writing this as I still have trouble with night shifts as a junior doctor. While I enjoy the fact that the corridors are emptier and the teamwork is more apparent, night shifts can be tough – physically, mentally and emotionally. Sleep is a wonderful thing and sleeping at night is only natural. Working at night when everyone else is cuddled up, warm and toasty in bed, seems like a violation of a natural law – and in a way it is. So how can you win?

Sleep. Your body needs it – if you won’t be sleeping at night, you will need to catch some zzzs during the day. It needs to be good-quality, top-notch stuff. You won’t survive a run of nights on a smattering of disturbed naps. You won’t thank yourself and neither will your team. Try to get into a routine from the day before, and prioritise sleep. Practise sleep hygiene. Let everyone and anyone know you will be sleeping! If you can’t sleep – rest, and where you can, limit stress!

Eat well. Try to avoid the lure of the Haribo train (that always crashes at approx. 03:15 when there are at least four hours of work left). Have healthy, nourishing snacks and titbits to tide you over – you may not want a big meal. It’s fine to have a treat or two (you’re on nights after all), but this cannot be your only sustenance. Drinking is important too – but caffeine is not necessarily the friend you think it is; try not to overdo the coffee consumption.

You won’t survive a run of nights on a smattering of disturbed naps.
Lydia Akinola, junior doctor

Working a night shift can be challenging mentally – your consultant is likely not on site and you’re covering more wards and patients than you would during the day. But if you’re stuck, ask for help. If there are too many jobs, and you’re not sure what to do next – speak to a senior to help you triage and prioritise. See if the nurses can do the cannula; the drug chart can probably wait for the day team. Where there is down time, take a break. This is not the time to work on your audit, it is a time to just be. Or to nap – a nap can do wonders.

Working a night shift can be daunting; it can feel like there is a skeleton crew and all you’re doing is firefighting, barely making a dent on the jobs list that is several pages long. Do not worry. When the shift is over, you do not need to apologise for handing over jobs – your work was to keep the hospital safe and that mission is now accomplished.

Emotionally it can be difficult to wind down, especially if you finish the shift with an adrenaline rush of a cat 1 caesarean section or an arrest call. When you do get home, try to avoid screens and keep to your post-nights routine. Do not delay getting into bed – remember, you too are human, and you deserve that sleep.


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