How to manage your sleep as a shift worker
As night falls and nocturnal animals start to slowly emerge there’s another, often forgotten, creature of the night heading out into the dark just as the rest of us begin our nightly wind-downs — the hardworking shift worker.
A shift-worker is someone who tends to play outside the 9-5 working rules and so has to get their sleep, generally, when we’re all awake. It’s a lot. And as we all know, getting enough sleep is a struggle for the majority of us but if you’re a shift-worker then a deep sleep can be even harder to come by.
We’ve just got a few hints and tips we think could help you drift off.
Keeping it consistent
Seven to nine hours may be the magic number when it comes to all things sleep but the key to setting a successful sleep schedule is all about keeping the time you spend asleep consistent. What that means for those working the night shift is that setting yourself the same sleep-wake times is important — even on those days off. Need to wake up at 5pm and go to bed at 8am? Then keep that schedule for the whole time you’re working nights.
Setting the mood (and some boundaries)
Setting, and keeping, that aforementioned schedule might be easy if you live alone in, say, a dark, cool cave but how about those small people, housemates or significant others you share your space with? Yup, it’s not easy and so set some clear boundaries around not waking you unless it’s an emergency — tell those kids that not being able to find something is NOT an emergency.
Once those boundaries are set, it's time to turn your attention to blocking out as much light and noise as you need to in order to fall asleep. Think about grabbing blackout blinds, eye masks, ear plugs, white noise machines, sleep sprays and comfy sleepwear. Oh, and turn your phone off. Unless you’re on call, of course. Getting these small details right makes a big difference to the quality of your beauty sleep.
Feeling as relaxed as possible before you climb into bed makes falling asleep way easier. The usual suspects — warm bath, yoga, meditation, light stretching, reading or listening to an audio book — all play a role as does taking some ‘me time’ before your head hits the pillow. Much like regular 9-5ers who take some time to wind-down after a day at work, so should the shiftworker. The one thing you should probably avoid? Alcohol. Yes, it might make falling asleep easier but the body breaking down the alcohol is sure to wake you up in the middle of your much-needed eight hours.
Some shift workers swear by a split-nap schedule. This means taking a nap for a few hours after getting home, and then sleeping for longer in the hours leading up to a shift.
But if you need more concrete proof that naps can be good for you…this NASA funded experiment came to the same ‘naps are great’ conclusion.
The research (conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Medical School) looked at whether astronauts and mission control workers could work well under differing sleep schedules, including split sleep. Participants were assigned sleep schedules that included a mix of split sleep schedules and full daytime sleep schedules with a control group sleeping the traditional eight hours a night. What they found was there was no real difference of alertness between the groups as long as the length of total sleep was significant. So, in short…take a nap.
Staying awake on the job
If you’ve followed all those hints and tips and find you’re still struggling to keep those peepers open when it’s time to head to work, here are some options for staying awake. Matchsticks not included. Or needed.
- Moderate that caffeine intake. Sounds counterproductive, we know, but while a strong espresso can do wonders for you at the start of your shift if you’re still drinking it within three to four hours of trying to sleep? It’s gonna hard to drift off.
- Get the heart rate pumping and give yourself a natural energy boost. Can you take a brisk walk around the block, 10 minute YouTube workout or some chair yoga? Anything to get the body moving will help you stay awake.
- Take a 10-20 minute nap — said to be the ideal timeframe for napping as you don’t enter a deep enough sleep to feel dazed and confused when you wake up. We’ve also heard about the ‘coffee nap’ where you drink a cup of coffee and then take up to a 20 minute nap. That wake-up time coincides with the caffeine taking effect.