Does your job entail working difficult shifts? Do you work nights, or have changing shift patterns from week to week?
I know from personal experience that it can be very demanding – on your body, mind and family life.
And as you probably already know, shift work can have a profound impact on your sleep, and usually not a good one.
Whether you need to sleep during the noisy daytime or regularly change your sleep pattern, there are many obstacles to a good night’s sleep.
Working through the night is more common than you might think. Statistics from the US show that nearly 15 million Americans have an irregular work schedule.
So let’s take a look at some practical steps you can take to improve your sleep. Some of these come from my own experience of shift work, and some are recommendations from sleep experts.
The challenges night shift workers face
Night shift workers can have many challenges, but there are 3 particularly difficult ones:
- Trying to sleep during the day: The sun is out, it’s noisy outside and your body doesn’t know whether you should be sleeping or not.
- It’s hard to concentrate: Working when your body wants to sleep can be unproductive, and sometimes dangerous.
- 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 a range of health conditions.
Night shifts and your health
There’s growing evidence from sleep researchers that night shifts can be bad for your health. For example, the risk of heart attack, digestive disorders and some forms of cancer increase over time.
But why does working at night have these effects on your health?
Some scientists suggest that disruptions to your internal body clock have a negative influence on your diet, habits like smoking, and sleep preferences.
These changes can lead to health conditions developing the longer you continue the night shifts.
Advice for sleeping better when working shifts
To help mitigate the health risks, sleep experts have some recommendations for improving your sleep and staying healthy.
1. Keep a regular sleep schedule
Even if you work different hours, you’ll still find that a regular sleep cycle can help you sleep better and wake up with more energy.
Ask your employer if they can arrange your night shifts so that they at least follow a regular pattern. This will help you to fully adapt to your new waking and sleeping hours.
By going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, you’ll hopefully get into a sleep promoting rhythm (even if it’s back to front).
Of course, this might not be possible for everyone. If not, still try to keep to a regular pattern on the nights that you work similar hours.
2. Block out external noise
Children playing, dogs barking, phones ringing, music, traffic – the daytime world is a noisy place.
There are various ways to block out noise in the house if you struggle with it. Personally, I find earplugs are the simplest and most effective solution most of the time.
Here are some simple ways to block noise:
- Use foam earplugs, which tend to work better than wax or silicone.
- Use a white noise machine or App on your smartphone.
- Use a fan on a setting that blocks noise but doesn’t disturb you too much.
- Listen to music or calming sounds on noise-canceling headphones.
- Sleep in a bedroom that’s furthest from street noise.
- Ask people in your house to be quiet while you sleep.
- Put your phone on silent.
- Adjust the sound of your doorbell.
3. Learn to relax
If you can’t stop the noise at the source, or shut it out, it’s easy to focus on the sound and become stressed by it. In that case, it can help to do some mindfulness exercises.
Those exercises will help you let go of any negative thinking about the noise. They also help you focus on your breathing and relax your body. And by doing so, make peace with the external distractions, ignore them, and sleep.
4. Eat regular, healthy meals and avoid junk food
Night shifts don’t just disrupt your sleep pattern – they also interfere with your eating habits.
Your meal choices and timings can greatly affect your digestion, energy levels, and sleep.
Researchers from Stockholm University provide useful advice to help you eat more healthily on night shifts:
- Don’t eat meals between midnight and 6 a.m. – the time your body struggles to metabolize food the most.
- Try to eat a healthy and varied diet. You might be too tired to prepare a healthy meal after a draining shift, but your health is worth the effort.
- Stick to three meals at consistent times each day – even if they are unusual times. This will help prevent overeating and reduce the temptation to snack on junk food and energy drinks. And the regular structure can help with sleep.
- In the morning after your night shift, eat a healthy breakfast before going to sleep. This will stop you from waking up because of hunger.
5. Switch off and check out
A common issue is trying to sleep when most of the people you know are awake. Family and friends 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 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 which is more active during the day.
So switch off your electronic devices, turn your phone onto silent, and even put up a ‘do not disturb’ sign.
6. Schedule a 30-40 minute nap during your shift
As the night progresses and tiredness sets in, many shift workers find it harder to concentrate.
A recent study found that short naps during night shifts significantly reduced feelings of sleepiness during the night.
Naps lasting between 30 to 40 minutes, taken between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., had the most beneficial effect. And the researchers found no evidence that short naps interfere with your sleep after your shift.
Some employers are aware of this beneficial effect and even have ‘nap rooms’ in the workplace. If your workplace doesn’t, speak with your employer before trying this attention-boosting technique.
Perhaps drawing their attention to the research above will help convince them!
7. Stay in the dark
Your sleep cycle is partly controlled by the hormone melatonin. Your brain naturally produces melatonin in the evening as darkness sets in, which makes you feel sleepy.
Then in the morning, with the influence of daylight, 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.
So try to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching your eyes as day breaks at the end of your shift. Wearing sunglasses on the way home might help. And avoid doing any outside activities when you get home.
Even with your eyes closed, your body will detect the presence of sunlight and reduce the amount of melatonin your body produces.
Installing some blackout 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 work at night.
By addressing these changes, you should find that working at night is safer, healthier and less difficult to cope with.
Do you work night shifts? Do you find it difficult to sleep during the day? Please share your experience and tips in the comments below.