Drowsy driving is almost as dangerous as drunk driving, and night shift workers are most at risk for driving drowsy.
While there are other health problems night shift workers have to contend with, drowsy driving doesn't have to be one of them if you follow these tips to stay alert.
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Practical Tips on Driving After the 3rd Shift
The first part is more practical tips for driving home after working the 3rd shift.
The last part is the more general tips that should be taken if you're going to work the night shift.
The reason we did it this way is that surviving every part of working night shift (including the driving part) really starts from the basics.
1. Try to shorten your drive time.
The average worker drives at least 45 minutes to and from work every day (source). The longer you drive, the more likely you are to become drowsy and the risk increases for having an accident.
If it's possible, shorten your drive time. You might consider sleeping at a hotel close to where you work on the days you work (especially for those with extremely long commutes).
A more extreme change would be to move closer to where you work so your drive time is shortened without the added expense of renting a hotel room.
2. Carpool whenever you can.
Having another person in the car to talk to and take shifts driving with can help keep you awake. If you have a co-worker that lives close by, consider carpooling into and home from work with them.
There are multiple incentives to this, including saving on gas money, mileage, and maintenance on both of your cars. You can also build a stronger bond with your co-worker that might otherwise have not formed if you didn't carpool together.
3. Consider public transportation.
If living closer or carpooling with a co-worker isn't an option, consider using public transportation to avoid drowsy driving. Public transportation is usually available near major medical facilities, so it should be easy to find.
Public transportation can also save you money on car maintenance and gas and give you the ability to take a quick nap prior to getting home.
Some companies even offer a shuttle service for their employees that work night shift in an effort to avoid drowsy driving. If this is a service your employer offers, take advantage of it.
4. Take a “power nap” on your lunch break.
Even the busiest nurses need a lunch break, so make sure you are taking yours every shift. This downtime is important for your body so you can refuel, rehydrate, and relax.
Sometimes referred to as “power naps”, these short naps allow the body to reset and can have some surprising benefits, depending on the length of time you sleep (source).
- 20 minutes– increases alertness and motor skills
- 30 to 60 minutes– improves decision-making skills
- 60 to 90 minutes– increases problem solving capabilities and brain connections
5. Listen to music or a radio talk show.
It may seem silly, but singing and talking can actually keep you awake while you're driving. Don't listen to soothing music that will put you to sleep, but listen to music with an upbeat tune that you can dance along to.
A radio talk show is a good alternative to having someone else in the car to talk to since you can respond to the questions they're asking, almost as if you're having a conversation with the hosts.
If neither of these are a good option for you, call a friend while you're on your way home to stay alert and awake.
Pro Tip: Another good option that I and some of the other nurses I've worked with use is to listen to an audiobook. One of my favorite services to use for this is Audible by Amazon.
6. Consult with a sleep specialist if you're still having trouble.
Drowsy driving can be very dangerous so it's important to address it with your health care provider if things aren't improving quickly with some of these tips. It can take the body awhile to adjust to a new sleep pattern.
So if you're not seeing any improvements in a reasonable amount of time or things are getting worse, definitely consult with your doctor.
They may be able to prescribe a medication that helps you sleep during the day and stay awake at night or give you some suggestions for improving your sleep quality.
If you notice signs of being drowsy while driving, such as drooping eyelids or crossing the centerline, pull over immediately and call for help or practice some of these tips we've suggested to boost your energy (source).
Tips for Driving Home After Working Night Shift
Now lets get to the general tips.
7. Caffeine helps, but it's not a magic bullet.
Drinking coffee or energy drinks before driving home can help you stay alert, but it can also make falling asleep once you get home even more challenging.
In a pinch, you can resort to caffeine to stay awake, but don't make it the top solution to this serious problem.
Night shift workers who drink caffeine regularly to stay awake tend to push themselves even harder, sometimes past their limits.
Not only does this create the potential for long-term problems, like stress on the heart, but it can also create caffeine dependence (source).
Caffeine withdrawal can occur in people that drink as little as one cup of coffee per day, so it's important to keep an eye on your caffeine intake.
Avoid drinking caffeine really close to the end of your shift. Personally I only drank it at the beginning part of my shift and then avoided it the rest of the time.
Caffeine can easily last well over 6 hours in the human body (source). So if you drink it too late then you'll probably have a hard time falling asleep when you get home.
This means you'll be tired at work, and then really tired by the time you're driving home…Do you see how it can become a bad cycle?
8. Get on a regular sleep schedule.
Working night shift messes up the body's natural circadian rhythm (source). Our bodies are meant to sleep at night and be awake during the day, not the other way around.
There are many ways to trick the body's circadian rhythm so you can sleep during the day.
The first step is to set a schedule and stick to it. Even on your off days, you should try to stick to the same sleep pattern if you can.
It's also a good idea to not switch frequently between day and night shift since that can really wreak havoc on your body and make adjusting to a new sleep schedule nearly impossible.
This is actually pretty important. When I worked nights on my days off I would try to go back to a regular sleep schedule.
It didn't work as I had hoped. The end result was me being extra tired even on my day off.
I would lose a day trying to get back to a normal routine and lose another day trying to switch back.
While I'm sure some people might be able to pull this off, I'm not convinced most can. I think the best approach is to find a routine that works and stick to it.
This also means deciding what your routine is after coming back from work. So, for example, are you going to sleep immediately after work and then be up for the rest of the time.
Or Are you going to be awake after work, run errands, and then sleep until your next shift.
9. Make your body believe it's daytime when it's nighttime and vice versa.
Light has a huge impact on our body's circadian rhythm, which, in turn, affects our ability to sleep during the day. You can trick your body into thinking it's daytime when it's really nighttime and vice versa with just a few minor changes.
- Place blackout curtains (like this one on Amazon) in your bedroom to darken it.
- Remove electronic devices like your cellphone from the room so you aren't exposed to blue light prior to falling asleep.
- Wear sunglasses or blue-light blocking glasses (like this one on Amazon) on your way home can improve sleep quality.
10. Follow a healthy diet and exercise plan.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet has been proven to improve sleep and your overall health.
Exercise releases endorphins that improve energy levels while the right diet rich in a variety of foods like good carbohydrates and protein can also increase energy levels and mood (source).
Before leaving work, eat a protein bar or something with a combination of carbohydrates and protein to boost your energy levels.
You can also do a quick workout to get your heart pumping, consisting as something as simple as doing a few jumping jacks or taking the stairs versus the elevator.
Related Article: 10 Healthy Snacks for the Busy Nurse
If you've tried and you're still struggling with night shift than it comes to a point where you might need to have a conversation with your manager to discuss other alternatives.
Switching to days or finding another job that allows you to workdays is not about “quitting” or “giving up” but it's about being wise and making sure you're taking the necessary precautions to keep yourself, your patients and everybody else on the road safe.
Working night shift is not easy on the body and takes time to get used to. Drowsy driving is just one of the problems night shift nurses encounter.
Following these tips can help improve your sleep quality and keep you more alert while driving home so you avoid an accident.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many hours should you sleep after a night shift?
You should try to sleep 7-9 hours after working night shift. 7-9 hours is the normal amount of sleep an adult typically needs. It's important to note that many 3rd shift workers may struggle to get that many hours of sleep.
How to drive home after working night shift.
Some tips for driving home after night shift would include carpooling, trying to minimize your commute time, listening to the radio or podcast and also rolling down your windows.