Improve Your Sleep on a Shift-Based Schedule

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation


Wacky work hours don’t need to lead to poor sleep.

Whether you’re pulling an overnight shift as a doctor or nurse at a hospital emergency room or working early mornings to prepare foods at a bakery, irregular hours can leave you exhausted if you’re not getting the sleep that you need. Not only can your health suffer, but your quality of work may also go downhill whenever you feel drowsy on the job. Your body is naturally wired to wake up with the sun and go to sleep when it gets dark, so veering from your natural circadian rhythm or body clock can confuse your body, making it difficult to fall asleep—even when you feel absolutely exhausted. But don't worry: Following these simple tips can help you get an optimal amount of zzz's, whether you clock in at 5:00pm or 5:00am.

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If You Work an Overnight Shift

  • Outfit your bedroom with curtains that block the majority of sunlight. A dark bedroom will help you nod off faster by signaling to your brain that it’s time to snooze. An eye mask may also help.
  • If possible, make sure the lighting at your workplace is bright, so it mimics daylight hours. If you explain to your boss or human resources manager that this would make you a healthier and more productive employee, your company may be willing to make a change and foot the bill.
  • Sport sunglasseswhen you leave your job. Keeping your exposure to bright light to a minimum will trick your brain into thinking that it’s time to wind down for the day.

If You Work an Early Morning Shift

  • Switch on a bright light as soon as your alarm goes off to cue your body to wake up. Some physical activity (such as a quick walk outdoors or jumping jacks in your living room) can also help boost alertness.
  • Set a bedtime for yourself that is at least seven hours before your wake-up call and keep p.m. distractions to a minimum: Set your phone on ‘silent’ and program your DVR instead of staying up late to watch TV.
  • If you’re having trouble staying awake at work, a short nap can give you an energy boost and enhance your work performance. Just be sure to keep it to 30 minutes or less—any longer can leave you feeling groggy.

This isn't always possible, but, ideally, you should try to limit the amount of shift work that you do as much as you can, and try not to work a shift that’s longer than 12 hours. If that’s not feasible, keeping your sleep and waking hours consistent and getting one long block of rest versus taking multiple naps can help you adapt to a regular sleeping routine. If you’re still having problems scoring enough shut eye—or if you constantly feel tired while working—see a doctor or sleep specialist.