I have been working as a CNA at our local hospital’s birth center for the last five months. It is my dream job while I finish nursing school and I can’t believe I was lucky enough to get it. Every night as I drive to work I tell myself “try not to mess this up, dumbie” and most of the time I just want a manager to walk by and say “I don’t think hiring you was the biggest mistake ever. I don’t actually cry myself to sleep at night thinking about it. ”
But sometimes it is 3am and I think “oh God it is so hard not to screw this up. and also to keep my eyes open. I am definitely not going to make it to the morning. I am probably going to just die right here in this chair. if only I could get up right now and make it to my locker I’m pretty sure there are jelly beans in there. the jelly beans might save me.” And then a nurse will walk by and make that “oh my God it is 3am and I think I might die–WHY ARE WE NOT ASLEEP RIGHT NOW?!” face and you realize you are not alone in the universe and you will probably actually make it to 7:30am after all, or at least if you don’t you will die among friends who understand your pain.
When I took this job I did a lot of poking around google trying to find out what to expect while working as a CNA on nights, and if it was actually doable, and if I really needed childcare or if maybe Blues Clues would suffice…and I didn’t find much. So here is everything I know about working nights, with the caveats that I am definitely not an expert and everyone’s experiences are different.
Exactly how much night are we talking about?
The funny thing about the job postings is that they assume you know things like what the night shift is, and whether or not you’re looking at 12 hour shifts or 8 hour shifts. At my hospital it is 7pm-7:30am with a 30 minute lunch that you sometimes don’t really take because some days you go a whole hour without doing anything truly productive. (That’s one of the many parts of this job that the Air Force prepared me well for–some of the time you are dramatically overpaid, some of the time you are dramatically underpaid…it all evens out in the wash.) I work part time, which means two 12 hour days a week and I am benefits eligible (huzzah! since it is cheaper for me to be on my own plan than on Nic’s). Full time is three 12 hour days. At my hospitals CNAs aren’t required to sign up for call, but I have a feeling that will be my least favorite part of being an RN (judging by the faces of the RNs when they show up to work after being called in).
Give in to the awful.
For the first three weeks at my job I oriented on the day shift. People were fairly confused about why I would want to go to the night shift and if I was really going to be capable of surviving such a made-for-sparkly-vampires schedule. This made me a little nervous. A lot of people asked if I’d ever worked nights before, and I had–in the Air Force I worked swing shift for a year (2pm-midnight) and whenever we had exercises I always ended up being on the actual night-to-morning shift. My only fear was due that those experiences were (a) a decade ago when I was spritely and (b) before I had children.
My favorite quote came from a coworker on the night shift when she met me while I was on day shift orientation. “I mean, it’s awful,” she said. “But eventually you just give in to the awful and then it’s not so bad.” Genius. She’s a genius.
The majority of us night shift CNAs are students and moms that don’t really sleep…um…ever. So for us, working the night shift is a lot like having a newborn. It’s awful, but eventually you just give into the sleep deprivation and know that it’s not forever and that eventually your tiny little career baby will let you sleep again.
I’m a little different in my schedule than most people because I request to never ever work back to back. Because this is what happened the one time I worked back-to-back shifts:
On the second night I went into the break room to eat my dinner. I was eating my dinner like a normal human being….and then I wasn’t anymore. I proceeded to pass out like a floppy dead person while sitting in the chair. Slumped over, limbs everywhere…totally OUT. I came to with a start as the break room door opened and one of the nurses walked in. I jumped up, mortified and completely confused as to things like my own name. It was awful. And therefore I learned that while I can work night shift without daycare, I cannot work back-to-back night shifts without daycare.
Here’s a little peek at my schedule of awful on the days that I work:
7:30am – wake up and start the day like a normal day. do normal day stuff, though all the while feeling sorry for myself that I will have to be awake all night.
7pm – start work. do work stuff.
7:30am – get off work and go home. This begins what I call my ‘recovery day’
8:30am – oldest child is safely on the bus. my five year old now tucks me into the sofa and sits on top of me playing with toys, watching television, and waking me up every 10-15 minutes with kisses and murmurs of how adorable I am. This is what I call ‘sleeping.’
11am – The worst thing in the world happens. (The struggle is real, people.) I have to get up. I have to get ready, I have to get Ellie ready, we have to have lunch and we have to get her to preschool. Every time I think that we probably just aren’t going to be able to undertake such a feat. But then I remember that I pay $260 for her to go to preschool and I do it. It’s impossible. Like when you have a newborn and you have to get to an 8am pediatrician appointment. But we do it. Twice a week.
1pm – I’m back from preschool and it’s time to be a real person. I go for a run and then come back and shower and do schoolwork. The run feels impossible too, but I’ve found it really helps keep my daytime/nighttime confusion down. Being out in the daylight for 30 minutes and working out means I’ll go to bed without trouble.
Somewhere after 6pm but before 9pm – Sleep. Blissful sleep.
Avoid the jetlag.
Working nights is a little bit like having permanent jetlag. To minimize the symptoms I:
- Run outdoors on my recovery day
- Wear a watch and look at it OFTEN, reminding myself of the actual time and not the emotional time (which, incidentally, is always oh-awful-thirty, so the emotional time doesn’t matter that much, anyway.)
- Get to bed before 9:30. If I’m up past 10, I’ve noticed that I get a second wind and have a really hard time going to sleep. As long as I go to sleep when I’m still in exhausted mode I’ll sleep until the morning.
Come for the differential, stay for the people.
I feel like the night shift slogan should be: “come for the differential, stay for the people.” It is true that if I fold little tiny baby shirts in a closet at 3am I get paid 33% more than if I was to fold those same shirts at 3pm. This is awesome. But I absolutely love the people I work with and that makes folding tshirts at 3am something I’d do for half the price. Except don’t tell Centura that. Tell them I’m the best darn shirt folder EVER and deserve twice my pay.
You are probably going to get a little bit fat. It’s okay; I’ll still love you.
I’ve neglected my body a little bit in the last several months and it’s starting to push back. It is really hard to make good food choices in hour 20 of consciousness. I’m trying to turn this around. Hopefully I’ll have some good advice in another 5 months for how to lose the weight you gain in the first 5 months!