How to Cope With Sleep Change When on Night Shifts
5 min read
Last Modified 1 June 2023 First Added 28 October 2014
For some people, working night shifts are a way of life. They can seamlessly go between working day and night as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. There are some professions, such as emergency services, that constantly require people to work nights and be absolutely on top of their game.
For those who are new to working night shifts, it is often a huge shock to the routine, taking a good while to adjust.
I interviewed Dr Catherine Darley, founding director of The Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine in Seattle, and Jamie Harris, Overnight Sub Editor at Digital Spy, two experts on night shifts, for two very different reasons, to see what they thought.
Dr Darley is a bit of a pro when it comes to sleep and the science behind it. Here’s what she had to say:
‘Shift work is inherently hard, as it requires being awake when the body is designed for sleep, and sleeping when the body is physiologically awake. Here are some tips:
The best strategy is to create a lifestyle that does not require shifting sleep hours back and forth from days to nights. At least people should identify 4 core hours that they sleep, regardless of whether it is a work day or not. For example, always sleep from 8am to noon.
To make this more feasible, think through and even write down those activities you need to be sure to do during day hours when friends and loved ones are awake. This would include doctor appointments, socialising, and outdoor sports. Also, plan what activities you are perfectly happy to do in the late hours on your own while others sleep.
Pay attention to the time of night when your performance is poorer, and purposefully plan easy and safe tasks during that time.’
Read more from Dr Catherine Darley.
Digital Spy is a highly popular showbiz & entertainment mag, and Jaime’s knowledge of night shifts come from experiencing them directly, rather than theorising on them.
‘I work 2am till 8am Monday to Friday, so I get the weekend to have some proper sleep. Generally, I split my sleep up, getting a few hours in before, from around 10pm to 2am, and then after my shift, from 8am till about 11:30am. I sometimes have a little nap in the afternoon if I have time. I do find it harder starting a new week after a weekend of normal sleep – as I work from home, I usually take a nap during my half an hour break on Monday and sometimes Tuesday, but after that I’m used to the normal pattern again.
The top tip I would give anyone is to try and keep to a regular sleeping pattern as much as possible – if you can deal with sleeping throughout the day, try and sleep in one whole block rather than splitting it like myself. But if you have to divide up your sleep, try and stick to the same time for consistency and your body clock slowly grows accustom to it. If you can extend it to the days you’re not working, that’s even better but you may risk ruining your social life.’
Reading both of these, it’s clear that routine is an essential part of sleeping and feeling rested, which is important, but ultimately unsurprising, as we always will be creatures of habit. Nevertheless, here are some quick tips you can take away to make your sleep more sleepy, and your waking hours more vibrant.
Going straight into a night shift is tough and it won’t be long before you’re pinning your eyelids open to stay awake. Sleep in as much as possible the day before and have an afternoon nap before your night shift starts so that you’re as alert as possible.
Some people have no issue sleeping during the day, whereas others find it a real issue and struggle with it. Give yourself the best possible chance of getting a good day’s sleep by purchasing blackout blinds for your bedroom (an eye mask is also effective), whilst ear plugs may help to block out any noise that may prevent you from sleeping.
It can be tempting to reach for a cup of coffee to help you stave of tiredness, but that’s not always the best idea. Drinking caffeine at the start of your shift can help you feel more alert, but be wary of drinking too much. This could lead you having a caffeine crash later on in your shift, could make it difficult to get to sleep once you’ve finished and can cause various other issues.
Just because your working ‘day’ runs throughout the night, you should still make sure you eat well. Have breakfast when you get up and have ‘lunch’ in the middle of your shift. However, don’t eat anything too heavy in the middle of your shift as this can make you feel sluggish and the urge to fall asleep will become even greater. Little, light and often is a good rule of thumb to live by.
Many sleep experts, including the NHS, recommend that regular exercise can help you get a better night’s (or day’s) sleep, as well as feel more awake during your shifts. You might not feel like it, but just a small amount of exercise each day will help you feel more alert, give you more energy and also help you sleep soundly.
These are guidelines that may work for most people, but it’s all about finding a routine that best works for you and your job.