Shift work and sleep

What works for you?

Shift work affects everyone differently and some people naturally adapt better than others. Much depends on your personal circumstances, responsibilities and fitness, as well as how well you can change your behaviour to fit around your job.

If you’re starting shift work, the first step is to work out the best time to sleep, so it fits in with your schedule and you feel refreshed in time for your next shift. You may need to experiment to find out what works for you.

Many people find it easier to delay sleep when they first start working shifts, rather than trying to force themselves to sleep earlier. So you may find you prefer to go to bed straight after your shift at first. However, some people get on better if they sleep a bit later in the day, so that they get up just before work. What works best for you will depend on how long your shift is, what time your shift starts and ends, and your responsibilities at home. This may also change if you have to move from working night shifts to day shifts and vice versa.

You may also find it helpful to plan short naps before or during your shift (if this is feasible) – but it can be difficult to fit these in.

It’s best not to work permanently on night shifts and ideally to limit your shifts to a maximum of 12 hours. If you switch between day and night shifts, try to arrange your schedule so that you have a minimum of two full nights sleep between them. This is because working shifts, and the effects it has on your sleep, can affect your health and increase your risk of having heart problems, for example.

Waking up

Daylight usually acts as a natural cue to tell our bodies when it’s time to wake. If you’re working shifts, a well-functioning alarm clock may be the only way to ensure you wake up on time every day. You may find it helpful to use an alarm clock that’s incorporated into a light box – this is designed to produce very strong, bright light that is similar to natural daylight.

When you do wake up, try to do some physical activity to help you feel more energised and ready for your working day.

On your shift

There are a variety of things you can do to while on your shift to make sure you stay alert.

  • Make sure the lighting in your workplace is as bright as possible to help your body adjust.
  • Eat enough during the working day so you only need a light meal before bed and aren’t hungry when you need to sleep.
  • Don’t have drinks with lots of caffeine close to when you go to bed as they can stop you getting to sleep.
  • Take regular breaks on your shift to keep you energised.
  • Plan your work around your shift – if you know you get drowsy at a certain time, wherever possible, do the most energising work at that point to make sure you stay alert. Talk to your colleagues too so you help each other stay alert.

Getting to sleep

If you find it hard to get to sleep during the day, there are several things you can try.

  • Do something calming before you go to sleep, such as reading a book, going for a short walk or having a warm bath.
  • Don’t do any intense exercise before going to bed, as this can make you feel more awake and make it harder to get to sleep.
  • Keep your bedroom cool to aid sleep.
  • Use blackout curtains or blinds to make your bedroom dark, or wear an eye mask to keep out light.
  • Put your phone on the silent setting to prevent interruptions. Ask family or friends to keep noise to a low level and to wear headphones when listening to music or playing computer games.
  • Talk to neighbours so they are aware of your shift work and ask them to keep noise levels low at certain times of the day. Wear ear plugs if there is any unavoidable noise, or play white noise or background music to drown out noise.

If you still find it hard to sleep, your GP may be able to give you further advice on the above or may refer you for other types of therapy (see Insomnia factsheet for more information).

Healthy habits

Shift work throws your body out of sync and this can have an impact on how you feel. As you’re working against your natural sleep pattern, it’s even more important that you maintain healthy habits.

  • Make sure you eat a healthy, balanced diet and keep your activity levels up – aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week.
  • Alcohol and smoking can affect your sleep. So if you smoke, try to give up – or at least cut down – and stick to drinking within recommended limits.
  • Talk to your friends and family about any difficulties you may be having adapting to shift work. Shift work can be isolating if few friends or family work the same hours as you. Try organising activities with your colleagues, outside of work.
  • Plan when you will do household errands or tasks – this can help prevent you feeling overwhelmed and not being able to sleep.

Finally, if you continue finding it hard to adapt to a new routine it may be that shift work is not for you and it may be worth looking for another job that isn’t based around shift work.

Published by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2012.