Tips for Night Shift Workers: Overcoming Shift Work Sleep Disorder
Humans are naturally diurnal, which means we’re designed to function during the day and rest at night. Our internal body clock, also known as our circadian rhythm, operates using light cues — daylight signals activity, while darkness encourages rest. That’s why the traditional 9-5 working hours are most conducive to our sleep-wake cycles.
Yet there are a number of important industries that require us to work through night, from healthcare professionals to engineers. Sporadic work rotas can often leave shift workers constantly battling against their biological clock, leading to fatigue and a reduction in concentration. However, by establishing a good routine, there are ways you can adapt to shift work and still receive a restful night’s sleep.
How does shift work affect your health?
Shift work can take a sizeable toll on your body and mind. Working at night skews your circadian rhythm, rendering you vulnerable to a host of health complications, includingi:
Reduction in quantity and quality of sleep
Complaints of lethargy and fatigue
Increased likelihood of weight gain
Increased risk of cardiovascular issues
Increased risk of anxiety, low mood, and neuroticism
Increased risk of work-related and vehicular accidents
Increase risk of gastrointestinal problems
What is shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)?
Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) strikes when your body can’t completely adjust to your irregular shift patterns. It can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, in which you’re unable to regain the sleep you've lost, preventing you from feeling rested and refuelled. If a shift worker experiences sleep deprivation for an extended period, they could fall subject to a number of negative symptoms, including: ii
Trouble falling asleep or broken sleep
Excessive sleepiness when you need to be productive and alert
Lack of energy
Low mood and irritability
Difficulty managing personal relationships
It’s worth noting, however, that not everyone who works shifts will suffer from SWSD. Many people will struggle to adapt to their new schedule initially, but that’s normal. If, however, after several weeks you still find it difficult to fall asleep or you feel tired after clocking 7-8 hours, then it’s possible you may have SWSD.
How can I overcome shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)?
We know that changing your job isn’t an option — but there are a number of steps that you can take to overcome the effects of shift work and still achieve a night of restful sleep.
Make your bedroom conducive to sleep
Creating a sleep-friendly environment is essential for shift workers — especially if you are sleeping during the daytime. Your bedroom needs to be dark, temperate, and quiet. Darkness is especially key because it signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep, triggering the production of melatonin — the hormone responsible for inducing rest. Installing blackout blinds is one useful way to block out light if you’re sleeping during the day.
Where possible, try to sound-proof your bedroom, and discuss your sleep schedule with your family or flatmates so you can rest without interruptions. You may even want to invest in quality earplugs. Finally, your bedroom needs to be temperate. Ensure that your room is a cool 16-18 degrees – the optimal temperature for sleeping.
Try light therapy
Since the human body takes most of its sleeping cues from light and darkness, light therapy can be a powerful tool to help you adjust to working unconventional hours.iii Timed exposure to a lightbox, which typically provides 10,000 lux (lux is a measure of light intensity), can recalibrate your circadian rhythm. That being said, you don’t necessarily need to invest in a light box to acclimatise your body. After sleeping and before starting a night shift, for example, turn on all the bright lights in your home to stimulate your body and wake up your brain. When you arrive home from work in broad daylight, lower the shades and draw the curtains so your living and sleeping environment mirrors night-time.
Adjust your mealtimes
Mealtimes can also help you to regulate your circadian rhythms. Regular meals ‘wake-up’ your biological clock, instructing it to start your day (even if your ‘day’ is at night). With this in mind, it’s well-worth changing your eating schedule to complement your irregular working hours, regardless of whether this means your mealtimes fall at awkward times. Try to eat three protein-rich meals a day, along with a handful of healthy snacks to provide your body with enough energy when it’s awake.
Avoid consuming highly-refined carbohydrates and sugary foods, too. These quick-fixes will only cause your energy levels to spike and then plummet. If you find that you’re hungry after a night-shift, prepare yourself a light, healthy snack, so as not to disrupt your sleep too much. Importantly, you should make a conscious effort to reduce your caffeine consumption six hours before sleeping.
For more information on sleep and nutrition, see our guide on 6 foods to help you sleep.
Try relaxation techniques
Falling asleep can be difficult at the best of times — let alone when you’re working an odd work schedule. To help you drift off faster, it can be useful to practise a range of mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, meditation, visualisation, and tension release exercises can quiet your mind and calm your body. Drawing on these relaxation techniques can better equip you to tackle your irregular sleep-wake cycles head-on. If you’re really struggling to switch off and wind down, natural supplements such as Valerian Root and Theanine & Lemonbalm can certainly lend a hand.
It’s doubtful that you’ll find time to head to the gym after a night-shift. But it can be helpful to squeeze in a few workouts around your shifts — be it a long walk on your day off, or a light jog around the park before you start work. When it comes to exercise, try to fit it in whenever you can as any movement is beneficial. Be mindful that physical activity doesn’t just keep your body fit and healthy, it’s vitally important for your mental wellbeing, too.
Shift work can be frustrating, but with these simple steps, you should be able to manage it a little easier. To discover even more articles on how to improve your sleep hygiene and wake up energised, feel free to visit our sleep health hub.
Harrington. J. (2011). Health effects of shift work and extended hours of work. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 58(1), 68-72.
Jehan. H.R., Zizi. F., Pandi-Perumal. S.R., Myers. A.K., Auguste. E., Jean-Louis. G., McFarlane. S.I. (2017). Shift Work and Sleep: Medical Implications and Management. Sleep medicine and disorders : international journal. 1(2), 00008.
Bovin. D. & James. F. (2005). Light Treatment and Circadian Adaptation to Shift Work. Industrial Health. 43(1), 34-48.
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.