For professionals in various fields, overnight shifts are an inevitable part of the job, as are the disrupted sleep cycles accompanying them. If you’re one of the 15 million Americans working outside the hours of 7 am and 6 pm , then you probably know far too well how challenging it can be to get enough quality sleep.
Having a non-traditional work routine that interferes with your body’s circadian rhythm (the internal 24-hour body clock that regulates your natural sleep-wake cycle) can have a knock-on effect on various aspects of your health and life.
Excessive tiredness while at work, cognitive impairments, physical and mental health complications, poor work performance and productivity, and shift work sleep disorder are just some of the issues people working the graveyard shift have to deal with.
Working overnight simply cannot be avoided in many professions, such as for a doctor, nurse, paramedic, factory worker, truck driver, or pilot. However, many other elements are within your control when it comes to surviving the night shift. Keep reading for practical advice on how to stay awake on night shifts and useful tips for setting the best sleep schedule for night shift work.
But before we get into it, let us first introduce you to Pzizz-an app that helps you fall asleep faster using scientifically supported methods. It has specific modes for both sleeping and napping that play personalized soundscapes to help you fall asleep easily and naturally. You can try it out for free by downloading it now.
Because a work routine involving sleeping during the day and waking up at night can throw the circadian rhythm out of sync, night shift workers are at a higher risk of sleep deprivation and insomnia.
Staying awake at night is disharmonious to the natural order of your body. The brain naturally releases melatonin-the hormone that drives you to sleep, in line with the circadian rhythm. Melatonin levels rise at night in response to darkness and drop during the day. In contrast, cortisol hormone levels rise during the day upon detecting sunlight to help you wake up.
As such, people working at night go against the natural pattern of melatonin and cortisol production. So no matter how much rest you get during the day, you’ll still feel tired at night due to this natural inclination to sleep when it’s dark outside.
A disrupted sleep cycle affects work productivity and quality, making you more prone to accidents and errors and more susceptible to a whole host of health problems.
For instance, many night shift workers suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). This condition impacts up to 40% of overnight and rotating shift workers, bearing numerous behavioral and health-related morbidity issues . SWSD is characterized by an excessive urge to sleep both on and off the job, coupled with bouts of insomnia, lack of concentration, lethargy, and depression.
The risk of other health problems also appears to be higher in those working night shifts, according to a 2014 study published in the Rehabilitation Nursing Journal. Such illnesses include heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers .
Another 2020 study on nurses who worked night shifts found the risk of developing breast cancer was twice as high in this group compared to participants who didn’t work night shifts .
Sleep deprivation and a person’s psychological state are also inextricably linked. Poor or inadequate sleep can cause mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression. A 2021 study found that people who slept less than 6 hours per night were around 2.5 times more likely to experience frequent mental distress than those who slept more than 6 hours . Mental health issues can, in turn, exacerbate poor sleep, creating a vicious cycle that may be difficult to break free from.
If your irregular working pattern is taking a toll on your health, you may wonder how you can do night shifts while still getting the restorative sleep you need. Setting a sleep schedule is an effective strategy on how to cope with night shift work. Consider the following:
No matter your work pattern or domestic routine, try to keep your sleep pattern regular by dedicating 7-9 hours to sleep at the same time after each night shift.
If you work rotating shift patterns, try to keep your sleep schedule the same each day as you work a series of night, evening, or day shifts.
While it would be ideal to maintain the same sleep-wake routine on your days off to prevent your body clock from being further confused and save you the trouble of re-syncing your circadian rhythm to your night shift schedule once you return to work, this isn’t usually possible. Instead, consider taking naps when needed to make up for lost sleep.
When working nights, rather than going to bed immediately after work, try to plan your sleep so that you wake up a couple of hours before the start of your next shift. This way, you will be more alert during your shift and less likely to feel drowsy, eliminating any potential for mistakes, accidents, or decreased productivity.
If you struggle to stay awake after getting home from your shift, splitting your sleep may be more effective. Consider taking a nap for a few hours in the morning and then sleeping for longer in the hours leading up to your shift to feel well-rested.
If your profession allows, you may also want to take a mid-shift power nap of up to 20 minutes to help you stay alert and energized throughout the night or even before heading home to avoid a drowsy driving accident. Research suggests that napping provides an energy boost similar to caffeinated drinks. It also enhances memory, motor skills, and learning performance compared to caffeine, which provides no benefits .
With that said, the longer you nap, the more likely your chances are to enter a deep sleep and feel groggy and disorientated upon waking. For this reason, keep any mid-shift naps between 10-20 minutes to help you feel refreshed.
Let your friends and family know your shift timings, so they don't disturb you while you sleep. By being aware of your sleeping hours, people who live with you can also be more accommodative by keeping noise and other disruptions to a minimum.
Working a consecutive number of night shifts can make you increasingly more sleep-deprived. Having a lie-in on the morning before your first night shift and then having another few hours’ sleep in the late afternoon or early evening is a good way to minimize fatigue, particularly before working a series of night shifts.
Don’t expect to switch from night shift mode to a normal day instantly, so try to schedule days off in between to help you recover. The key is to listen to your body; sleep whenever you feel the urge to, as this is your mind and body telling you you need some rest.
In the days leading up to your night shifts, gradually tapering your sleep and wake times towards your new schedule will make the transition easier. For example, rising two hours later each day and going to bed two hours later.
Intentionally timing exposure to bright lights can help adjust your natural body clock. Keep your work environment as bright as possible in order to signal the body to stay awake by using a bright desk lamp, overhead lights, or a lightbox.
Similarly, after finishing your shift, suppress light as much as possible by wearing sunglasses on your way home, limiting time spent in front of bright screens, and keeping your home environment dimly lit.
A 2013 study found those night shift workers who exposed themselves to bright lights during their shift and wore sunglasses on the way home to minimize light exposure went to sleep quicker and for longer than those who didn’t .
Think about adopting a wind-down routine to help your mind and body recognize that it’s time to sleep. Personalize your ritual to what works for you, whether it’s taking a warm shower, doing some light reading, drinking herbal tea, or doing aromatherapy.
Meditation is also a great way to help your mind and body relax to induce sleep. The Mesmerize app offers a whole range of meditations to help you doze off and achieve quality sleep, from guided imagery and visualization to deep breathing techniques and much more, all of which are backed by science.
Download Mesmerize on your iOS or Android device today to take your sleep to the next level.
The Pzizz app was developed using credible science-backed technology that is proven to treat insomnia and its various causes using the same techniques as those used in clinical sleep studies.
Sequences of sound, known as Dreamscapes, are specifically tailored to each stage of the sleep cycle using a combination of voiceovers, sleep-optimized music, and sound effects to induce deep relaxation.
With this unique combination of science, music, and technology, the Pzizz app has helped millions of people get the best sleep. So if graveyard shifts have left you worse for wear, give Pzizz a go on your iPhone or Android device today.
A daily dose of coffee or other caffeinated drink can be a great way to help you survive a graveyard shift; however, timing and careful consumption are crucial. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it’s best to take it at the beginning of your shift to boost alertness.
Avoid caffeine at least five hours before your scheduled bedtime to allow your body sufficient time to metabolize it and prevent you from staying awake. It should also be noted that moderate and more frequent amounts of caffeine are more effective in increasing alertness and cognitive performance than huge doses taken at once .
You may be tempted to have a glass of wine after your shift before heading off to bed. Although it might feel like alcohol helps you fall asleep, you should know that it prevents you from getting the deep, restorative sleep you need to recover and increases the likelihood of sleep disturbances throughout the night and waking up earlier than intended.
Night shift workers have a 23% increased risk of becoming overweight or obese due to poor diet and a disrupted circadian rhythm . Therefore, it is important to plan your meals effectively, per your waking hours.
Steer clear of rich, fatty or heavy foods that are difficult to digest or may increase drowsiness, and opt for light, healthy meals and snacks instead. Eat your last meal at least three hours before going to sleep to allow your body enough time to digest it.
Ask family members and friends to avoid phone calls or visits during your scheduled sleep time.
Resist the urge to check your phone or watch television as you prepare for bed or if you wake up during your sleep. The bright light from such devices tricks your body into staying awake by producing more cortisol and less melatonin. With the burden of adjusting to a night shift routine, the last thing your body clock needs is further disruption from blue lights.
Keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Consider using black-out blinds or curtains, or wear a sleep mask to bed to block any daylight. Earplugs or a white noise machine are also worth having to block out any disruptive outside noise.
Your body cools down naturally at night in preparation for bed, but during the day, your body temperature is high, making it difficult to fall asleep. To reduce body temperature, keep your room cool, preferably between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Try taking a lukewarm shower before bed or wearing light. Cooling materials to optimize sleep.
Engaging in at least 150 minutes of exercise a week has been found to improve sleep by 65% . However, avoid doing any exercise too close to your bedtime; the subsequent surge in adrenaline can produce the opposite effect of inducing sleep. Moving around during your shift can also help to make you feel more alert and energized.
Taking melatonin supplements can be a great way to induce sleep during the day. However, exercise caution when taking melatonin, as taking them at the wrong time can worsen sleep problems. Always speak with your doctor or sleep specialist to know how much melatonin to take and when.
On average, it can take around ten days for the body to adjust to night shift work; however, some people may start to feel adjusted in as little as two days, while others need 2-3 weeks to get used to the pattern. Moreover, reverting to daytime routines on days off can further destabilize your circadian rhythm.
Experts recommend 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night for adults to achieve optimal health. Healthy night shift workers still require this recommended amount of sleep, despite working non-traditional hours. Sleeping less than seven hours is insufficient and can result in increased fatigue, poor work performance, and health complications.
Napping during your night shift break can give you the energy to remain alert and refreshed until it’s time to go home. A power nap of 10-20 minutes is sufficient to make you feel re-energized; anything longer can leave you groggy upon waking.