By: Juliann Scholl
Updated March 19, 2021
The human body's sleep-wake circadian rhythm helps us rise with the sun and fall asleep after sunset. Unfortunately, being on a shift work schedule can disrupt this system, making it hard to fall asleep on time and feel refreshed for work the next day.
Approximately 25% of people in the U.S. (1) work evenings, nights, early mornings, or rotating shifts. Although maintaining a regular sleep schedule is more difficult for shift workers, they still need the seven to nine hours of sleep (2) experts recommend adults receive each day.
How Does Shift Work Affect Your Sleep and Overall Health?
Work that takes place between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. (3) constitutes shift work. People working within this time frame are prone to insufficient sleep and fatigue during waking hours. Most night shift schedules do not match a person's circadian rhythms, which are the body's temperature, appetite, and sleep patterns that roughly correspond with each 24-hour period.
Circadian rhythm interruptions commonly occur among shift workers. When work schedules significantly interfere with natural sleeping and waking times, shift work disorder (4) might develop. The signs of this disorder include insomnia and excessive sleepiness during working hours for three months or more.
In addition to experiencing fatigue, shift workers may be more likely to make mistakes or have accidents at work. They are also at greater risk for drowsy driving and car crashes, especially on the way home from work. Given the importance of healthy sleep to productivity and overall health, the following strategies can help shift workers get the rest they need.
Create a Healthy Sleeping Environment
A calm, soothing sleep environment can help promote the sleep shift workers need. Make your sleeping environment as relaxing as possible. Wear your favorite pajamas or use a familiar pillow. Keep your bedroom dark and cool when you're ready for slumber.
When you must sleep during daylight hours, wearing an eye mask or using black-out shades or blinds might help trick your body into thinking it is nighttime. Try earplugs, a white noise machine, or headphones and a smartphone app to block out distracting sounds. If you keep your smartphone nearby, however, resist the urge to look at its screen.
Nap When You Can
Brief naps can combat sleep deprivation, improve job performance (5), alleviate stress (6), reduce sleepiness, and boost the immune system. Research suggests that nurses who nap during their overnight shifts tend to feel less tired (7) when they drive home.
Ten minutes (8) tends to be the most effective nap duration. If your job allows it, try to take a nap during a break. Because of the increased risk of a car accident on the way home from work, consider taking a 10-minute nap in your car when you get off work. Try drinking coffee right before napping to give the caffeine from the coffee time to kick in and give you a boost.
Plan shorter and longer naps (9) around your work schedule. Naps during work hours should be no more than 15 to 30 minutes. Plan longer naps (about 1.5 hours) before you report for a night shift.
Develop the Best Sleep Schedule for Night Shifts
Consistency is critical when setting a night shift sleep schedule. Set your alarm for the same time each day and be reliable with your bedtimes. Try going to bed as soon as possible after work so that your body does not get tricked into staying up. Follow your sleep schedule, even on your days off.
A bedtime routine like a warm shower before bed might help you relax, and avoid caffeine three to four hours before bed. Alcohol might help you fall asleep initially, but it will hinder healthy slumber and perhaps wake you up early.
Plan Sleep Techniques for Rotating Shifts
Even if your shifts rotate, you can still train your body for a graveyard sleep schedule. Before your next night shift, set your alarm so that you wake up as close to the start of your workday as possible. Another option is to nap for a few hours when you get home from a night shift, and plan a longer nap so that you wake up right before work the next evening.
Use Strategies While You're Awake
As a shift worker, there are many actions you can take while awake to help reinforce the sleep-wake schedule you desire. Try these strategies:
- Exercise during off-hours, which can enhance sleep health.
- If possible, drink small amounts of caffeine every one to two hours during your shift to stay alert.
- Climb stairs or engage in other short bursts of activity to heighten alertness.
- Use increased lighting in your workspace to simulate daytime, or talk to your supervisor about this making this arrangement.
- When you leave work, wear sunglasses to avoid sunlight exposure that could interfere with falling asleep when you get home.
- If your shift is early in the morning, turn on a bright light and do jumping jacks or other activity when you awaken.
There is no single best sleep schedule or approach to sleep that works for all shift workers. It’s best to try different strategies until you find one that works for you.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31628471/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26039963/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30952228/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32351777/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23411360/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25668196/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27082421/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16796222/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.
- https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2020/04/02/fatigue-crisis-hcw/ Accessed on March 16, 2021.