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Top 5 tips for surviving a 12-hour shift on the ward

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More days off and increased continuity of care for patients are the most notable benefits of twelve hour shifts, but there’s no denying that they can be physically and mentally draining

During my first year as a student nurse, and my previous year as a healthcare assistant, I’ve been desperately trying to identify what I can do to make 12-hour shifts more manageable. This is what I’ve learnt:

1. Get an early night and be organised

Boring I know, but getting a good night’s sleep is absolutely key for early mornings and a long day on your feet. I know how difficult it is to get to sleep when you know you have to be up, but don’t fall into the trap of playing on your phone or watching something on your laptop - this will only keep you awake.

Instead, read a book or listen to some music or a podcast, so that you’re at least relaxing even if you aren’t sleeping. Pack your bag the night before, have your uniform ready, ID card laid out, and make sure you know where you’re going before you set off. The worst kind of panic is a 6am panic. As a side note, don’t forget your hand cream.

2. Stay hydrated and eat well

Wards are hot, and a lot of the work is physical. Drink more than you think you should as often as possible.

Such a long shift needs proper fuel, too. Taking your own lunch not only means you will probably make healthier choices, but it will save you money too. Pack foods which will release energy slowly and keep you full throughout the day. Try not to respond to cravings - junk food will only leave you hungry and make you crash, and the rest of the shift will be that much tougher. Eat the chocolate when you get home - or, my favourite, in the car on the way home.

3. Stay busy

Be proactive and take every opportunity available to you. This will be great for your learning and development, but is also a sure fire way to make the time fly.

Take advantage of your supernumerary status and go and talk to other healthcare professionals, ask questions, offer your help in other bays, and spend time properly talking to patients. It’s tempting to have a little sit down when you get a chance and peruse some paperwork, but unless it’s necessary it really slows down momentum and makes the shift drag. This applies tenfold to night shifts.

4. Write everything down

So much happens over the course of 12 hours on a ward, you will never remember all of it. Tick lists are your best friend; they are a foolproof solution for staying on top of tasks. Anonymise your notes before you go home and they will be invaluable when you come to write reflections and evidence.

5. Reflect, then switch off

Such long and demanding shifts feel very intense and I often feel overwhelmed by everything I’ve seen and done as I leave the ward. Reflection is important both personally and professionally but don’t let it take over.

I allow myself to reflect during my journey home, but as I walk through my front door I try to switch off. It’s difficult - and sometimes impossible - but it’s crucial to give yourself a chance to recuperate before you have to do it all over again.

Jocelyn Henderson is a second-year adult nursing student nurse, University of Nottingham

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