Sunset and water

The magic and other stuff of night shifts

Oct 18, 2023 | Reflective practice

As friends and fellow midwives we have had many rich conversations about our work, and inevitably we ended up exploring our relationship with night shifts. This article is the combination/compilation of these conversations. What is it to work nights; what is the impact on our bodies, relationships, home life? 

There is something about working at night. Many of us do night shifts in various job roles, and hospitals as one example, offer a 24-hour service and have to be fully staffed, so every night all over the world people are working at night in health care settings.

We have worked nights on and off throughout our lives and find it interesting to explore our relationship with them because the essence of what it is to work nights is sweetly elusive.

There is magic afoot certainly and there is also the physical challenge of working through the night when our bodies have a natural rhythm and call to rest. 

So why do we love night shifts? There is something about being at work at night, a quality which is not there during the day. There are less people, less phone calls, less noise generally and even when it is really busy there is still an element of stillness and settlement that is not there during the day. The stars are out and we are at work. We too, workers and those in our care, are in a natural state of settlement and repose and this quality is real, tangible and very reassuring when we connect to it.

But let’s not pretend it is easy. And let’s not pretend that everyone has the same relationship with nights. For some of us it is an endurance with benefits – enhanced pay, an excuse to not interact so much and/or permission to be less whilst at work because its hard and we are justified in being tired. We can be cranky, off, withdrawn, low, identifying with the hardship and indulging in recognition.  

‘But I’m on night shift, I shouldn’t have to do that.’ 

‘You need to look after me, I’m on night shift.’ 

‘Don’t ask me to be myself because I can’t, I’m tired.’ 

‘Don’t ask me to do more than the bare minimum overnight, I’m tired.’

‘Don’t ask me to help out at home… I’ve just done a night shift.’  

There is a subtle permission to be grumpy, to tell everyone who will listen that we just did a night shift and soak up their sympathy and praise for what selfless and dedicated members of society we are.  

But… there is something about working at night, there is awe and wonder… and we all feel it. And… is it that working purposefully actually vitalises us and makes us less tired?

Maximising the opportunities to enhance our workspaces, supporting our colleagues coming onto the next shift, going the extra mile and maintaining our standards at home, actually puts a spring into our step. Staying attuned to our bodies and caring for them in the simple ways of maintaining hydration, going to the toilet and not getting spun out by external things are all part of our care plan.

And on those bonkers busy nights we can then stay steady and focussed on all that is needed and not let ourselves get played by thoughts that wish we were elsewhere, anywhere but here at work. 

This is a fitness that we can develop and endlessly deepen.

Is it possible to look forward to night shifts and with deepening awareness be able to navigate them more and more smoothly and joyfully? The combination of self-care, being honest about how we feel, clocking and slam dunking the rogue indulgent thoughts and allowing ourselves to be infused with the magic that is on offer, does turn things around.

And the joy in preparing for nights that calls for a level of tenderness, respect and honouring that cannot but touch all other areas of our lives. When we realise the importance of taking care of ourselves and act on this realisation it has an impact on every aspect of our lives. 

There is a duality here, the joy and the discombobulation of it; the quiet appreciation of offering care, against the need for recognition; the inspiration from being at work, alongside the justification of being lethargic and looking for stimulation and reward to keep going.

What is then in plain sight for us, clear as day, laid on the table… the more honouring and appreciative we are of ourselves and the work we do, the simpler it is to take the necessary steps to deeply support ourselves when we are working nights. All the temptations are also laid out on the table, but muscling through with coffee and chocolate to use an example, pales into insignificance when we get to feel the benefits, ease and joy of taking tender care and feeling vital and well at the end of our shifts. 

A shift from endurance to surrender; from toughing it through to adoring ourselves and the work we do so much, that we cannot but take care of and responsibility for our wellbeing.

It is not a walk in the park. The set-up in our societies and workplaces does not support this way of being with night shifts; it is, however, evidently possible to make the changes required to thrive not just survive the joy and challenge of them. 

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