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Staff development on the evening and night shifts:  Tips for providing meaningful learning experiences

Learning environment

After reading this article, you will be able to:

  • Identify education delivery methods specific to evening and night shifts
  • Explain the types of programs most effectively offered on evening and night shifts

Editor’s note: This article is based on a series of informal discussions among colleagues concerning meeting the needs of evening and night shift staff.

Providing learning opportunities for evening and night shift staff requires innovation and commitment. People who work evenings and nights often complain they feel slighted when it comes to education. They are often asked to come in early or stay beyond their shifts so they can participate in educational offerings. They would prefer in-person programs during the hours they work. 

Staff development specialists have their own concerns about providing in-person offerings during these shifts. Attendance is often poor, and thus some educators feel it is a waste of time to try to offer education during the evening and night shifts. How can staff development professionals reconcile such problems and still establish a presence on these shifts?

Consultation with colleagues has generated much discussion and some practical ideas for problem resolution. A physical presence on evenings and nights is important, but must be carefully planned. Few departments have the staffing resources to assign regular persons to these shifts. If you do, you need to show that it is cost-effective and has a positive effect on job performance and organizational functioning. Let’s start by reviewing the distance learning methods established for all shifts.

Distance learning

Distance learning techniques, such as self-learning modules, computer-based learning, and podcasts, are good strategies for all staff members. However, these techniques require good communication between learner and staff development specialist. Since much of this communication occurs via phone, e-mail, or other distance mechanisms, we must be meticulous in how we address concerns and respond to issues that affect the learners. 

The following are some tips for facilitating distance learning on evening and night shifts:

  • Make sure that all necessary equipment is in good working order and accessible during evenings and nights. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to participate in a distance learning experience and not being able to access equipment (e.g., DVD player, computer programs) or having to deal with broken equipment. This can be especially aggravating when the staff development department is closed.
  • Set up specific e-mail boxes for each shift. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but it will help you track questions, comments, and concerns by shift. All distance learning programs should indicate on the evaluation forms a mechanism for direct communication, such as by e-mail. Establish a time frame for your response, such as 48 hours. But remember, once you establish a time frame, you need to stick to it. Be sure someone is assigned to read/review e-mails and respond, and designate a backup responder to cover sick days, vacation days, etc.
  • If the distance learning experience requires a posttest or other written evaluation of knowledge acquisition, establish a time frame for letting learners know whether they passed. Make sure the time frame is clearly stated as part of the written evaluation and that you meet the deadlines you established. 
  • If the distance learning activity requires a skill demonstration component, set up the skills lab so all shifts have the same opportunities to practice prior to testing.

Professional development

Be sure to include members of the evening and night shift in activities that promote professional growth and development. The training and education of preceptors on these shifts is critical. Some orientation, of course, is accomplished on day shift. However, nurses and other staff who work other shifts must participate in orientation directly with preceptors on evenings and/or nights, depending on the shift the orientee will work. 

Mentoring opportunities must include members of evening and night shifts, both as mentor and mentee. Leadership development is one such mentoring opportunity. Too often, potential leaders are selected and groomed predominantly from the day shift. If your organization has mentor and/or leadership development programs, be sure to recruit staff from evenings and nights. They bring a different perspective to most topics of discussion. They see a predominance of visitors, cope with disgruntled family members, and deal with episodes of environmental problems (e.g., fire, safety issues) without the more extensive staff and resources available on day shift. 

In addition, facilitate committee membership among evening and night staff. Thanks to technology, it is not necessary for staff to be physically present during committee meetings, which are routinely held during the day. Instant messaging, e-mails, and Web and teleconferencing are options for attendance. Risk management, quality improvement, and Joint Commission readiness are just a few examples of critical areas that require input from those who work during the evening and night hours. Analysis of medication hours, for instance, cannot be adequately performed without input on how the process works during these time periods. Evening and night shift supervisors, in addition to staff members, must be included in the process. What better way to include them than to have interested staff members serve as committee members? This also helps these staff members feel that their input is important and their contributions to the organization are recognized and valued. Remember this when it comes time for recognition and award ceremonies; nominate members from these shifts, as without them, no organization could function. 

Most staff development departments facilitate publication in professional journals and submission of abstracts for paper and/or poster presentations at conferences and conventions. However, representation from evening and night shift perspectives is historically lacking. The next time you encourage colleagues to publish or present, make sure that you seek out individuals who work evenings and nights. 

In-person programming on evenings and nights 

What about the physical presence of staff development specialists during evening and night shift hours? As already mentioned, few organizations have the luxury of assigning staff development specialists to specific shifts. A few of our colleagues from large health systems said they have part-time staff development specialists assigned to evenings and/or night shifts. However, these are the exception, and some of these positions are in danger of being eliminated due to budget constraints. So for the purpose of this article, let’s address this issue from the perspective of having to rotate staff development specialists to evenings and nights.

The following are some recommendations:

  • Select a regular day of the month (e.g., the first and second Tuesday of the month) to cover evening and/or night shifts, and stick to it. Staff need to know that you will be present during your scheduled times.
  • Consult with evening/night shift supervisors (and staff members when possible) when planning your schedule. They are the best persons to suggest days, times, and desired learning experiences.
  • Select your learning activities carefully. When working these shifts, present need-to-know rather than nice-to-know information. 
  • Choose learning experiences that have a skill demonstration component whenever possible. Sitting in a classroom at 2 a.m. is not conducive to learning, but participating in an active, hands-on learning experience will be.
  • Some of our colleagues have met with success when they set up a skills lab available for multiple hours throughout the evening and night. Examples of what to cover include new procedures, equipment, and competency demonstrations. Staff can drop in when they please. Naturally, if only one staff development specialist is present, he or she cannot teach and evaluate demonstrations. Didactic information can be available as self-learning modules, DVD, or posters. After completing the didactic portion, staff can proceed to the demonstration portion of the learning experience. Don’t forget to set up an area for practice prior to the actual demonstration. Most learners will welcome the opportunity for practice. 
  • Mock drills, such as mock Joint Commission survey tracers, are also good learning activities. Too often, such drills are limited to the day or early evening portions of shifts. But Joint Commission readiness means being ready 24/7.
  • Avoid learning activities that are sedentary. Again, sitting in a classroom or watching a DVD at 2 a.m. may be more conducive to sleep than to learning.
  • Maintain your enthusiasm. Be a positive advocate for ongoing learning.
  • Consider promoting research projects that focus on evening and night shift patient outcomes. Round-the-clock input is important when investigating patient outcomes.
  • Make sure you gather evidence-based staff development data specific to your activities during evening and night hours. Focus on attendance, knowledge acquisition, and application of knowledge in the work setting. Link your presence on these shifts to positive patient outcomes and improved job performance.

In summary, opportunities for continuing education and professional growth and development must be an around-the-clock process. Establish a system that facilitates staff development presence during the evening and night shift hours. Provide opportunities for mentoring and leadership development. 

But most of all, establish an environment for learning from which evidence can be gathered that shows education has a positive effect on patient care, job performance, and organizational effectiveness.