Optimizing Sleep for Shift workers
Although often neglected by some, it goes without saying that sleep is a basic human need. Its role in protecting our physical and mental health is well-established that it is considered as important to our bodies as breathing, eating, and exercising.
Most adults (18-64 y/o) are recommended to have between 7-9 hours of sleep each night1. For someone who works regular hours and without any existing sleep disorder, having this much sleep is nothing short of attainable with proper planning of your day and time management.
However, if you are a shift worker who works at night, early morning, or rotating shifts, getting adequate sleep can be a real struggle even in the best of times. The sleeping difficulty comes as no surprise because you are essentially forcing your body to sleep against your internal body clock that is naturally designed for you to be active in the day and asleep at night1. On top of that, the presence of disturbance factors such as light and noise are highest in the morning, making it even more challenging to bring yourself to sleep.
Whether you are an experienced shift worker or new to shiftwork, the added stress and worry from the current pandemic has likely made getting enough sleep even more challenging for you in the past months.
Sleep Deficiency and Health
Not getting adequate sleep can leave you feeling worn-out and exhausted the next day. It can also cause some alterations in brain activity that negatively affects your attention, concentration, reaction time, memory, and mood2. For this reason, you may notice that you are less likely to finish tasks and more likely to make mistakes when you lack sleep, which can subsequently affect your performance, productivity, and safety at work.
However, the dangers of sleep deficiency go far beyond these short-term productivity issues. Over the long term, consistent sleep deficiency can lead to lower immunity and chronic health problems such as heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke2. If not prevented, the sleep deficiency associated with shiftwork can absolutely take a heavy toll on your health and eventually lead to impairment of quality of life.
Sleep Tips for Night-shift Workers
Sleep challenges associated with shiftwork are not without a solution. Just like any other health issue, there are steps you can take to improve your sleep even while working at night so that you can prevent both the short- and long-term consequences. The following are some tips from SleepFoundation.org that can help you shift your sleep in the right direction.
- Adjust your sleep. When working at night, try to shift your sleep so you wake up close to the start of the next night shift, rather than going to sleep as soon as you get home in the morning. Alternatively, you may split your sleep so that you sleep for a few hours when you get home in the morning and then take an extended nap that ends just before you have to go back to work the next night.
- Be consistent in your sleep schedule. Sleep consistency is key for many employees working at night-shift schedules. If you normally wake up at 5PM for your night shift and go to sleep at 8AM after getting home from work, then you also should maintain this sleep-wake schedule even on your days off.
- Improve your sleep environment. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Use an eye mask or blackout shades, and wear earplugs or try a white noise machine or app. If you live with family or roommates, let them know when your sleep times are so they can try not to disturb you. Unless you are an on-call employee, consider turning your phone off while you sleep.
- Practice a relaxing pre-bedtime routine. Take a warm shower, read a book, play a soothing music, or meditate before going to bed. Sticking to a routine gives your body and brain cues when it is time for sleep. In addition, avoid using gadgets that lack a blue-light filter, as using these before bedtime can interfere with sleep. To avoid daylight exposure that signals the body to stay awake, it might also help to wear dark glasses on your way home to encourage the production of melatonin (sleep hormone) and prepare your body for sleep.
- Avoid caffeine 3–4 hours before sleep. If you really need to drink a caffeinated beverage (coffee, cola, energy drinks) to keep yourself awake and alert at work, do so at the beginning of your shift, but not 3-4 hours before sleeping.
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime. While alcohol might help you fall asleep, it will reduce the quality of your sleep and may make it more likely that you wake up early.
- Consult a sleep specialist before taking melatonin supplements. Melatonin supplements may help promote daytime sleep but should be taken with proper guidance because when taken at the wrong time, it may worsen sleep problems. Seek the advice of a sleep specialist for when and how much melatonin to take, and where best to obtain it.
Just remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all solution”, and you may need to try different strategies (or combinations) to find what works best for you when it comes to improving sleep. Trying to achieve the 7-9 hours of sleep while on a shiftwork may be a challenge at first, but as you figure out the best way to adapt to this non-traditional work schedule, it will be an easy feat and your body will thank you for it.