Imagine trying to fall asleep after a tiring shift at work. You’re just starting to doze off when the doorbell rings. Bleary-eyed, you quickly get dressed, stumble to the front door, and discover a delivery person standing in beaming sunlight asking you to sign for a package.
It’s not what you want when you’re trying to sleep, yet this is the kind of scenario that night shift workers will be familiar with. Working after the sun goes down, then trying to sleep when the rest of the world is awake, can be a real challenge.
Working through the night is more common than you might think; the latest available statistics show that nearly 15 million US workers have an irregular work schedule.
The challenges night shift workers face
There are many challenges that night shift workers face, but there are perhaps 3 in particular:
- Trying to sleep during the day: The sun’s out, it’s noisy outside and your body doesn’t know whether you should be sleeping or not.
- Night shifts can be bad for your health: Studies show that working night shifts for a long period of time can increase the risk of developing a range of health conditions.
- It’s hard to concentrate: Working when your body wants to sleep can be unproductive, and sometimes dangerous.
In this article, I’ll be looking at ways to adapt to difficult night shift hours. You’ll find some useful tips to manage your sleep better, and hopefully get enough of it to stay healthy and be at your best.
Night shifts and your health
There’s growing evidence from researchers that night shifts can be bad for your health in various ways.
For example, night shifts seem to increase your risk of contracting a chronic disease. Over a prolonged period of time, the risk of suffering a heart attack, digestive disorders and certain forms of cancer increases.
Why does working at night have these effects on your health? Researchers aren’t sure, but they believe that long lasting disruptions to your circadian rhythm can have a negative influence on your diet, smoking habits and sleep preferences to help you get through tiring night shifts. Over time, these changes can lead to health conditions developing.
Improving your sleep when working night shifts
To help mitigate the health risks, sleep experts and researchers make several recommendations for improving your sleep and staying healthy when you work nights.
Keep a regular sleep schedule
Even though you’re working different hours, you’ll still find the classic advice of keeping a regular sleep cycle can help you fall asleep more easily and feel less tired when you wake up.
If possible, ask your employer if they can arrange your night shifts so that they follow a regular pattern. This will help you fully adapt to your new waking and sleeping hours. By going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, you’ll soon get into a sleep promoting rhythm (even if it’s back to front).
Of course, this might not be possible for everyone, but if there’s any chance of having regular hours, it’s worth requesting them. And if not, still try to keep to a regular pattern on the nights that you work similar hours.
Block out or be relaxed about daytime noise
Unless you’re blessed with the ability to sleep through anything, it’s not easy to sleep through the noise in your own home or the world outside. Children playing, dogs barking, phones ringing, cars driving – the daytime world is a noisy place.
Another effective way to mask outside noise is to use a white noise machine, or even play a white noise recording through some good headphones.
And if that’s not quite enough sound reduction, you can double up by using earplugs and listening to white noise, or music if you prefer, at the same time.
Mindfulness techniques can also help you sleep through distracting daytime noise. It can be all too easy to focus on these sounds, making it even harder to fall asleep.
By focusing on your breathing, recognizing the unhelpful thoughts that your brain produces and trying to let go of the anxiety the daytime noises are causing you, you can learn to make peace with the external distractions, not stress about them and relax.
Pay attention to your diet
Night shifts don’t just disrupt your sleep pattern; they also interfere with your eating habits. Eating late at night can affect when you feel hungry and how food is digested by your body.
What you eat and when you eat it can also have a negative effect on your sleep. This can be the start of a vicious cycle involving insomnia, unhealthy eating and less exercise.
Researchers from Stockholm University have given the following advice to help you eat more healthily when you’re working night shifts:
- Try not to eat between midnight and 6am. This is the time period during which your body struggles to metabolize food the most.
- Try to eat a healthy, varied diet. Understandably, after a long night shift, you might be too tired to eat anything other than fast food, or easy to prepare but unhealthy meals. However, a little extra effort could have real benefits for your health.
- During a long night shift, it can be tempting to snack on unhealthy food or energy bars and drinks. Try to stick to three meals, even if you eat them at odd times. Sticking to a routine like this will help you avoid overeating. The structure that it gives you could also help to improve your sleep after your shift has ended.
- In the morning after your night shift, eat a healthy ‘breakfast’ before going to sleep. This will stop you from waking up hungry, thus helping you stay asleep for longer during the daytime. Have a read of the article about food for sleep for some ideas of bedtime snacks.
Switch off and check out
A common issue is trying to sleep when most of the people you know are awake. Family and friends who live a more conventional 9 to 5 life might naturally want your time or attention, even if it’s seemingly harmless behavior like messaging you.
So it’s a good idea to tell others when you’re planning on sleeping, so that they know not to disturb you. Setting clear boundaries ahead of time will lower the risk of being woken up by a ringing phone or a knock at the door.
You should also avoid checking emails and social media during your sleep hours; it’s all too easy to be drawn into the online world as everyone you know gets busy replying to messages and posting on social media.
So switch off your electronic devices, turn your phone onto silent and put up the metaphorical ‘do not disturb’ sign.
Schedule a nap during your shift
Many shift workers find they get tired and find it more and more difficult to concentrate as their night shift progresses. A recent study found that scheduling short naps during night shifts significantly reducing feelings of sleepiness during the night.
Naps lasting between 30 to 40 minutes, taken between 2 am and 3 am, seemed to have the most beneficial effects. And researchers found no evidence that these short naps interfere with your sleep after your shift.
Naps taken earlier or later during the night shift didn’t seem to be as effective though – between 2am and 3am seems to be the most effective time.
Some employers are aware of this beneficial effect and even have ‘nap rooms’ in the workplace. If your workplace doesn’t, you’ll want to speak with your employer before trying this attention boosting technique. Perhaps drawing their attention to the research above will help convince them!
Stay in the dark
Your sleep cycle is influenced by a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is produced in your body when it’s dark, making you feel tired. When it’s light, your body produces less melatonin, helping you to wake up and stay awake.
When you’re working a night shift, the hormones released in your body don’t match your work pattern; your body wants you to sleep when you need to stay up and then be awake when you want to sleep.
One way of dealing with this is to try and stay out of sunlight as day breaks. Towards the end of your night shift (particularly in summer months, when the sun rises earlier) and on your way home, wear dark glasses. This will encourage you body to produce more melatonin, helping you sleep later.
Even with your eyes closed, your body will detect the presence of sunlight and reduce the amount of melatonin your body produces. Installing some black out blinds in your bedroom or using a sleep mask will stop sunlight from disturbing your daytime sleep.
Night shifts can carry health risks, but many of these risks are as a result of changes to your behavior and sleep patterns. Without the structure of a ‘normal’ working day, you tend to eat more unhealthy food and get less sleep than you need.
A combination of changes to your diet, how you organize your shift and plan your daytime sleep can improve how you feel and how effectively you can work at night. By addressing these changes, you should find that working at night is safer and healthier and less difficult to cope with.
Do you work night shifts? Do you find it difficult to sleep during the day? I’d love to hear your experience, and any tips you have for coping with difficult shift patterns in the comments below.