Imagine trying to fall asleep after a long and exhausting shift at work.
You’re just starting to doze off when the doorbell rings. Bleary-eyed, you 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.
And working through the night is more common than you might think. The latest statistics show that nearly 15 million Americans have an irregular work schedule.
The challenges night shift workers face
Night shift workers can have many challenges, but there are 3 particular 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.
- 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 you can 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, 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?
Some scientists suggest that disruptions to your internal body clock might have a negative influence on your diet, habits like smoking, and sleep preferences. Over time, these changes can lead to health conditions developing.
Advice for sleeping better when working shifts
To help mitigate the health risks, sleep experts make several 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.
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 hopefully 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. And if not, still try to keep to a regular pattern on the nights that you work similar hours.
2. Block out external noise
Unless you’re blessed with the ability to sleep through anything, it’s not easy to sleep through noise. Children playing, dogs barking, phones ringing, music, traffic – the daytime world is a noisy place.
An alternative is to listen to white noise, either with a dedicated sound machine or with headphones and a phone App. And some people find the sound of a fan helps mask external noise well.
3. Learn to relax with mindfulness
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 might 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. 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 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 the effort could have real benefits for your health.
- During a long night shift, it can be tempting to snack on unhealthy food or energy drinks. Instead, stick to three meals at consistent times each day – even if they are unusual times. This will help prevent overeating, 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 from 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 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.
6. Schedule a 30-40 minute 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 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 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? Please share your experience and tips for coping with difficult shift patterns in the comments below.