Five Self Care Tips for Long Shifts

Long shifts are part and parcel of many nurses’ working lives, and even with excellent self-care, those long days and nights can take their toll on the healthiest nurses.

We all know that it’s common for nurses to develop all sorts of excuses for not practicing self-care due to the many demands of their work. It’s understandable that those of us who care for others so much might oftentimes neglect ourselves, but it’s also possible to provide for ourselves just a little of the TLC that we bestow so readily on our patients.

Some of you out there may laugh and tell me that you simply “can’t afford the time” for such luxuries as self-care, but I would counter that statement by encouraging you to realize that the quality of the care that you deliver can be greatly compromised if you’re not caring for yourself. It’s our responsibility to ourselves—and our patients—to be at our best throughout our shifts. And being at our best also means caring for our own bodies and minds as we go about the business of nursing others.

1. Take a stretch break

If you have a job that requires long hours on your feet (or long hours in a chair), your body can suffer if you don’t give it some well-deserved attention during the course of a long shift. There are many simple but effective stretches that can be employed right in the nurses’ station. Yoga teachers and fitness instructors (as well as yoga DVDs and books) can teach you very simple and helpful stretches that, when practiced for even two minutes every hour or so, can remove stress from your shoulders, neck and back, and bring some relief to your hardworking feet, legs, and arms. (And if you do them in view of other colleagues, some may even want to join you or learn from you. And if any of your colleagues laugh, let them! Laughter relieves stress, strengthens the immune response and oxygenates the brain!)

2. Hydrate and urinate

Hydration is one of the keys to health, and I bet that thousands of nurses become dehydrated during the course of long shifts. We all understand physiology, and we all know that hydration is good for the joints, digestion, kidney health, and any number of physiological functions. We also know that withholding urination can lead to infection, bladder dysfunction and other illnesses and symptoms, so taking the time to drink water (not just drinks heavy with caffeine and sugar!) on a regular basis—and relieving your bladder just as regularly—are great ways to keep your body more fine-tuned during a demanding shift.

3. Take a break!

This may seem laughable, but we all need to take a breather, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Have you ever noticed how smokers always seem to find the time to get outside for a smoke break, even if they’re buried with paperwork and patients? They often have a physiological need to smoke (powered by a dependence on nicotine!) and that dependence creates the urge to make smoke breaks happen, no matter what. So, become “dependent” on fresh air, exercise, or time away from the unit. Take your breaks—you need them!

4. Eat well.

This may also seem funny to many of you nurses out there, but sugary snacks and carbo-loading do not a healthy nurse make. Complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, high-quality proteins, and fruits and vegetables should figure prominently in your diet at work. Do you need to take more time to prepare snacks and meals to bring to work? Do it. Are there healthy choices in your facility’s cafeteria? Choose them. (If not, start a movement to change that reality!) Eating well and being well nourished will help your brain and body function better. Your patients deserve a well-fed nurse, not just a frazzled nurse mindlessly buzzing on sugar and caffeine.

5. Partner with Colleagues
Making a pact with other colleagues is a great way to encourage one another to practice good self-care. Make agreements, keep track of one another, and hold one another accountable for self-care during shifts. If several of you want to work together on this, appoint a different person to be “the self-care charge nurse” during different shifts, and allow this person the right to badger you about hydrating, taking breaks, and making other healthy choices during your shift. You can even create contests or prizes as incentives for good self-care.

These are only suggestions, and even if you implement them slowly and over time, you know deep down that taking better care of yourself while working long shifts (or even normal shifts, for that matter!) is better for everyone, including your patients. Nurse, you have to heal yourself first, so start with self-care at work—and outside of work too—and you’ll be happier and healthier for it.


About Keith

view all posts

Keith Carlson has worked as a nurse since 1996. He received an Associate Degree in Nursing from Greenfield Community College in 1996, and a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2001.

In addition to clinical nursing roles, Keith has held the position of Adjunct Professor of Nursing for a small LPN diploma program in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and has served as clinical preceptor for a variety of nursing students pursuing their education.

As a well-known and award-winning nurse blogger, Keith has maintained “Digital Doorway”, a popular nursing blog, since 2005. He currently practices nursing in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Keith also offers expert professional coaching for nurses and nursing students — including health, wellness, career, work-life balance, and burnout prevention and recovery — under the auspices of Nurse Keith Coaching and NurseKeith.com.