The world of emergency vet clinic practice has seen some subtle changes in the last decade or so, particularly when it comes to working night shifts. In another blog, I mentioned how outsourced out-of-hours care now means dedicated professionals care for our pets during the night, but how easy is it for night shift colleagues to also look after themselves?
In a recent podcast, my light-heated chat with colleague Annie Clark, Emergency and Critical Care Veterinary Nurse for over 11 years, included recollections of working night shifts ‘on rota’ when starting our professional careers. As a result, between my experience as an emergency veterinary surgeon and Annie’s as a specialist in emergency, out-of-hours practice, we’ve highlighted some tips for coping not only with the clinics, but also with working nights.
You can listen to the whole podcast – including some of our hilarious out of hours experiences – here.
Get into a routine for sleeping
Sleep is an essential part of our physical and mental wellbeing. Because your sleep pattern changes when working nights, it’s essential to maintain a strict routine so you adjust to sleeping during the day, as Annie explained:
‘Remember, you need to have that sleep; it’s really easy to get distracted because it’s the daytime – you do routine jobs and are running errands! But you must treat sleep the same as if you’ve come home from work on a working day; have your dinner and go to bed. You need to do that, that’s really the best advice I can give.’
Annie also advises investing in good blackout blinds, a sleep mask, ear plugs, whatever you need to get good quality sleep after a shift. Putting the phone on silent and letting others know your schedule can also help for avoiding interruptions to daytime sleeping.
Eat regularly …
Food and nutrition are of course part and parcel of staying healthy and Annie recommends always eating something before a night shift. A huge meal isn’t a great idea, but eat something substantial enough to keep you going for a few hours. Slow release carbohydrates like potatoes and pasta are ideal, so do make time to eat before going back on shift.
Because although you might plan to eat during a night shift, you can’t predict it’s going to be possible; there’s no way of knowing what cases might arrive in the emergency clinic or what you might end up doing in the wee small hours by the time your break comes around!
… But eat healthily
For me, the biggest risk when working nights is that you get tired and immediately reach for something sweet. When clients have brought in a big box of chocolates for everybody and the day team walks out the door, the night team comes in and starts picking at it – especially in a 13 hour shift, it’s hard not to!
Annie recognises that healthy eating when working nights needs to be a focus, but admits that with all those treats around it’s not always possible: ‘I’m not going to preach what you should do, I’ve eaten way too many chocolate biscuits in the small hours of the night!’ she laughed!
But we both agree that taking healthy snacks with you on shift is a good way to prepare, so there’s something on hand to ward off the temptation to snack on treats – and so you leave something for the day team!
Coping with a night shift – the team
Apart from the difference in eating and sleeping patterns, another big change when working night shifts in an emergency vet clinic is the size of the teams. Whereas day shifts can mean a whole host of professional and support staff, night shift teams can be as tiny as just two people. Annie agrees that although this is something that makes a difference to the shift as a whole, it really can work positively:
‘Working in small teams has always worked so well for me. Personally for me, you just take such good care of each other, at least in my experience, because you’re both in it together; there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide!’
Of course, this relies on the relationships you quickly establish, so our top tips for coping in a tiny team include:
- Work on those communication skills.
- Build positive relationships as quickly as possible, particularly if you haven’t worked with the other person before.
- Agree a proposed schedule – and boundaries, as needed – for the shift ahead.
These might sound hard to do, but this is absolutely what worked for me on night shifts where I was thrown in at the deep end with somebody I didn’t know too well – and sometimes for a very long shift. You really need to rapidly build a rapport, build a relationship, and build a plan with them.
Annie also recommends having a plan: ‘I think it’s so important to set those boundaries, put them in place and have somebody who understands that concept. Without that structure, it can make things a lot harder, especially when you’re working together for a long time.’
Listen to the podcast to find out how setting a structure on our very first night shift together set the tone for a fantastic working relationship for Annie and I as an emergency vet clinic team!
In all, working night shifts in an emergency vet clinic is a great experience and one I’d recommend. Just be mindful of our tips and take care of yourself and your team colleagues – as well as those poorly pets – to get the most from the experience for your professional practice.
Dr Paul Manktelow is a vet who’s worked for almost 20 years on the front line in some of the UK’s busiest veterinary hospitals. As Chief Vet in the Charity Sector, he leads a team of vets and nurses that treat thousands of pets every year. Paul also appears regularly in the media as a TV and radio presenter, writer, public speaker and podcast producer.