Coping With Night Shifts

By Darren Scott, Resource Coordinator

What do Security Guards, Nurses, Firefighters, Truck Drivers, and Air Traffic Controllers all have in common?

They all work night shifts. Whether you are a morning or night person, working night shifts can be challenging. I have collected some tips to help you cope with working into the late and early hours of the day.

Due to our 24/7 society, nearly 17 million people in North America work full-time night shifts, evening shifts, rotational shifts, or other irregular schedules. Almost 19% of people over 18 work for 48 hours or more each week. Individuals are needed to work through the night for many reasons. If you are one of these individuals, finding ways to cope is important to continue living healthy. Here are coping strategies for working after dark.

Control Light Exposure

Exposure to light triggers the circadian rhythm that affects your sleep and wake cycles. Artificial light can affect your circadian pacemaker in the same way as sunlight, and timed exposure to bright light can help to alter your body’s sleep cycle. During night shifts, you can “trick” your body into an alert state with exposure to bright light. Research has shown those night workers who were exposed to bright light during their shift and wore sunglasses on the way home to suppress light drifted off to sleep quicker and slept for longer after their shift than people who received no bright light exposure.

Beware of exposure to blue light emitted from digital devices, such as your smartphone, tablet, or television, before you go to bed after a night shift. Research has suggested that blue light knocks our circadian rhythms off-kilter, which signals to your brain that it is daytime and results in poorer sleep quality.

Ways that you can control your exposure to light include:

  • increasing bright light exposure during your shift with regular overhead lights or a bright desk lamp or lightbox;
  • wearing sunglasses on your way home;
  • using dark blinds, curtains, or drapes or a sleep mask to block out daylight in your bedroom; and
  • switching off digital devices in your bedroom.

Keeping your bedroom dark will help to keep your body in sleep mode until it is time for you to wake up and begin your day.

Manage Your Sleep Patterns

Some people can work at night with no problem at all, while others experience sleep deprivation and fatigue. This is because the human body is designed to sleep at night. The human body is controlled by an internal body clock, or circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms run in 24-hour cycles and are influenced by the natural light and dark cycles. Many of the processes in your body that are active in the daytime slow down at night to prepare you for sleep. At night, the circadian rhythm releases the sleep hormone melatonin, which causes you to feel less alert and raises your desire to sleep. Night shifts cause you to battle against your natural rhythms by trying to be alert when you are programmed to be sleeping. Similarly, when you go home after a night shift, the cues from your internal body clock and daytime light exposure tell you to be awake and active.

Working at night involves successfully managing your sleep during the day. Daytime sleep can be lighter, shorter, and of poorer quality than sleep at night due to light, noise, and temperature.

Try these steps to keep your sleep-in check and make your environment better for sleep.

  1. Do not delay going to bed. The longer you delay going to bed, the more awake you are likely to become.
  2. Try to set aside a block of 7 to 9 hours to dedicate to sleep after a night shift.
  3. Have something to eat and drink before you go to bed. Hunger or thirst may wake you up.
  4. Avoid alcohol and nicotine before you try to sleep.
  5. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature. Use earplugs to block out daytime noise and blackout curtains to prevent daylight entering the room.
  6. Notify friends and family of your working hours so that they do not disturb you.

Watch Your Diet

Planning your meals can help you to stay alert during your working hours and be more relaxed when you need to sleep. Try to stick to a similar eating pattern to the one that you would follow during the daytime. Eat frequent light meals or healthy snacks to avoid the drowsiness that is associated with heavy meals. Choose foods that are easy for your body to digest, including bread, rice, pasta, salad, milk products, fruits, and vegetables. Avoid foods that are difficult to digest, such as fried, spicy, and processed meals. Snack on fruits and vegetables, sugars from these are converted slowly into energy.

Keep hydrated while you are working to promote physical and mental performance.

Use Caffeine Carefully

Caffeine is a stimulant. When used properly, your daily dose of coffee can help you to remain alert throughout a shift. Most people take a huge dose of coffee at the start of their shift in order to jump-start their day. However, research suggests taking a different approach to maximize the effects of caffeine for shift workers. People that consumed smaller amounts and more frequently throughout their day experienced enhanced wakefulness, performed better, had fewer accidental naps than those who had no caffeine. Caffeine use should be stopped around 6 hours before bedtime to ensure that the stimulant does not affect your sleep.

Every person is different, so finding the right combination of techniques that suit you best may take time. Applying some of the above strategies may help you on your way to coping better with working at night and ensuring that you get the right amount of sleep to function properly.

  • Category: HQ News