8 Sleep Tips for Shift Workers

We’d all love to dictate our work schedules and to have our professional lives sync neatly with our personal, family and health needs. Too often, however, this just not possible.

Nights? Overtime? Early mornings? Whatever your hours, you’re not alone. According to the New England Journal of Medicine and WebMD, more than 20% of workers in industrialized nations work either night shifts or rotating shifts. Similarly, the National Sleep Foundation estimates that 22+ million Americans work evening, changeable or on-call shifts.

Unfortunately, these types of irregular schedules can lead to a host of consequences including restlessness, sleepiness, fatigue, decreased attention, memory problems, irritability, depression, absenteeism, accidents, and disruption of the body’s metabolic processes. And if sleep issues are allowed to become severe, the health ramifications can become severe, too, with increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, and obesity, reports the National Sleep Foundation.

This doesn’t mean that there is a need to panic, though. There are ways to improve rest for greater well-being. The Cleveland Clinic, National Sleep Foundation and U.S. News & World Report recommend the following sleep tips for those working “non-traditional” hours:

  1. Be consistent. Try to create routines that signal bedtime — any time of day. Your goal is to achieve 7 to 9 sleep hours every day. To get there, be sure to wind down with the predictable, soothing rituals. Reading, calming music, gentle yoga, a warm bath, and certain natural remedies are just a few of your choices.
  2. Prepare your sleep sanctuary. Ensure your bedroom is cool, quiet and dark. You may need to experiment with “black-out” or “room-darkening” curtains, ear plugs, eye masks, “white noise” machines, or fans to achieve this. Remove disquieting clutter and distracting screens including smartphones, tablets and computers. Try to avoid using your smartphone as your wake-up alarm because it’s often too tempting to take a peek at emails, social media or the news when you should be snoozing. A boring old clock is actually a better choice.
  3. Shun sunshine and “blue” device light before you go to sleep. Even if you’ve been up all night, bright lights send “wake up” signals to your brain. Block light by wearing dark, wrap-around sunglasses on your way home from your job. Similarly, towards the end of your shift, limit the light from your devices as much as you can. Screens are notorious for keeping us awake so turn on “night shift” options or consider blue light filters.  On the flip side, when you begin work you can use light to your advantage. Turn on all your workplace lights (if possible) and learn about small, portable “light boxes.”
  4. Be smart about naps. Try taking a 90-minute nap before heading into work. If you need to drive home, consider another “power” nap (perhaps 15-20 minutes) at the workplace before you depart; it can make your commute safer. Both of these sleep sessions can contribute to your daily “sleep bank” (with a goal deposit of 7-9 hours in a 24-hour period.)
  5. Use caffeine wisely and strategically. While caffeine can be helpful just prior to work and/or during the beginning of your shift, you want to allow your body a few hours to process it before heading to sleep. Aim to stop drinking caffeine four hours prior to your bedtime.
  6. Avoid alcohol. Although it can help you to feel sleepy and relaxed at first, later in your sleep session alcohol may actually cause you to wake up prematurely.
  7. Talk to your friends and family about your sleep times and priorities. Recognize that It can be difficult to carve out quality time with your loved ones when you are working irregular hours. Solicit their input so you can plan to socialize in ways that don’t sacrifice your sleep. Explain to your tribe how much sleep you need, the health benefits of quality sleep, and the routine you are trying to stick to. Ask for their support as you make changes for your improved health, safety and mood. Once your friends and family know your sleep hours and motivations, they are less likely to interrupt you unnecessarily.
  8. Know when to get help. If, after a month or two of following our sleep tips, you are still having trouble adapting to your irregular work schedule, consider talking to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist about more advanced interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. How can you recognize when expert assistance is needed? Errors at work, falling asleep while driving, the inability to sleep enough, and the presence of other health concerns (such as high blood pressure or depression) can all be signals that it’s time to get a professional involved.

Alternative schedules can be challenging and we commend all those who do the important work needed in this 24-hour world. Wishing you many safe, productive nights and restful days.