10 Dec How to improve your sleep when you work night shifts
For the majority of people, the boundaries between the time they spend awake and the time they spend sleeping is as clear as, well, night and day. But, for those that need to work through the dark hours, the boundaries are much less well undefined.
According to 2017 figures from the TUC, the number of people working through the night in the UK increased by 9% (260,000) over the previous five years, meaning that one in nine employees in the country work after hours. And, with more Britons experiencing the graveyard shift on a daily basis, there’s a greater number of people trying to get to grips with an inverted sleep cycle.
How does working nights affect sleep?
First and foremostly, working the night shift has the potential to disrupt your circadian rhythm, which is your internal timekeeper. Naturally, your body tries to keep you awake and alert during the day, before bringing on drowsiness and sleep in the evening. This rhythm is reinforced by external signals like light and temperature.
So, when you need to do the opposite and remain awake during working hours at night and sleep through the day, your body finds it difficult to adjust. This is also compounded by the fact it’s lighter and warmer through the day and cool and dark at night, which sends conflicting messages to your circadian rhythm. The result is usually a feeling of tiredness at work and wakefulness when you’re trying to get some rest and recovery afterwards.
This effect can be worsened if you work irregular shifts that don’t commit to a single pattern between early and late work. While you’re on a permanent schedule, your body can adjust to a point, but when you are on and off with your night shifts, you could fail to get into a regular sleep cycle.
Ultimately, working nights for extended periods of time has been found to have a negative impact on your health. In the short term, there are increased risks during work: night shift staff are three times more likely to suffer a work-related accident and twice as likely to have a car accident than their day work counterparts (The Young Foundation).
Research into the long-term effects is ongoing: a study by Glasgow University linked circadian disruptions to increased risk of depression and bipolar disorder, while more research from the University of Colorado Boulder found workers are more likely to suffer from Type 2 diabetes than colleagues who work through the daytime.
What can I do to deal with night shifts?
Working night shifts can be difficult to deal with and it’s important to adopt the right approach to avoid problems further down the line. To help you out, we’ve put together some tips for surviving night work.
Try to maintain a regular sleep cycle
As we’ve mentioned, your circadian rhythm needs a regular sleep cycle to function properly, and it’s possible to get it attuned to night work at the same time each day. It should do this naturally as your body gets more familiar with resting through the day. Even so, it’s vital that you’re getting the right amount of sleep each day — 7–9 hours — to ensure that you are at your healthiest. If you feel tired before your shift, a quick nap can often help — be sure to read our advice on the art of napping.
The real problem lies with irregular night shift patterns where your body can’t adjust. The best way to deal with this type of work is to try and keep it to a minimum, so that you’re not always all over the place with your sleep cycle. If you have a prolonged period of irregular work coming up, try to schedule a day off in between so that your body has a chance to recover. Should it be necessary, you may need to speak to your employer about this issue, as they have a duty of care.
Get your diet balance right
Diet can have a big effect on your sleep quality, and it becomes even more important when you’re trying to adjust to adverse conditions like night shifts.
Make sure you drink plenty of water while you work to stay hydrated, as the last thing you want is to arrive home dehydrated — a known sleep disruptor. You should also aim to eat well during periods of night time work and to avoid eating junk food, which is usually the most readily available sustenance in the evening and beyond. Try to prepare a healthy, nutritious meal and bring it with you if at all possible. We recommend checking out our five foods to aid sleep for more advice.
If you like a caffeinated or sugary beverage to give you energy, try to consume them in the first half of your shift as you don’t want them in your system when you return home and try to get some rest.
Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary
To make getting some rest when you arrive home as easy as possible, you should make sure that your bedroom is a sleep sanctuary that’s designed to make drifting off as easy as possible.
We’ve already mentioned how light and temperature are key signals for your body clock, so you should aim to keep your room dark and cool to create night-like conditions. Buying some blackout blinds or a good sleep mask is one way to limit light exposure, and you may need to adjust your thermostat to ensure the temperature is in the right range for sleep — 16-18°C according to The Sleep Council.
You will also want to ensure that your bed is as comfortable as possible, so you can relax and wake up feeling refreshed. Should it feel a little worn out, we recommend investing in a new memory foam mattress or a mattress topper to boost the level of support for your body. The right type of pillow can also go a long way towards increasing comfort, so you’ll want to pick one up if your current one is giving you a sore neck.
Share your schedule with friends and family
Lastly, to make sure that you can have an undisturbed sleep, you should take the time to tell your family and friends when you will be working night shifts. By providing them with your schedule, they will be able to make plans with the demands of your job in mind. You’re also much less likely to be woken up by someone giving you a call or knocking on your door for a quick visit.