Optimize your schedule for night shifts

Image of Dr Sophie Bostock
by Dr Sophie Bostock

Even if you can’t change your shifts, what you do before, during and after the shift can make a huge difference to your sleepiness and your general mood. These tips can be helpful for both night shifts and late shifts. Look down the list for things that are in your control. Test out what works for you, and try to do it more often.

Before your night shift:

• Most people can cope with up to a 2-3 hour shift in their sleep-wake cycle. If you have a few days before you start night shifts, gradually taper your sleep and wake times towards the new schedule, for example, by rising 2 hours later each day and going to bed 2 hours later.

• Take a nap before your shift to reduce sleepiness when you’re at work.

• If you’re a natural early bird, try a long nap for up to 3 hours to reduce your sleep debt. If you’re a night owl, you’ll find it more difficult to sleep in the afternoon but try at least a 15-20 minute nap before you get ready for work.

• Be aware that if you nap for more than 30-40 minutes your body will enter deep sleep. The advantage of deep sleep is that it will help to reduce a sleep debt, but it can take around an hour to be fully alert again, so allow time to wake up afterwards.

Staying alert while you’re at work

• Seek out bright light before and during the early part of a night shift. Even if work areas need to have dim light, break areas should still be well lit. If your workplace feels too dark, speak to your employer about increasing the brightness of the lighting.

• When you have the same shift for at least a few days, eat a meal or snack at the same time each day to promote regular body cycles. If you working nights for several days, eat ‘lunch’ mid way through your shift.

• A mid shift power nap of up to 30-40 minutes is more effective than coffee for improving alertness.

• Caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee can be helpful stimulants to promote attention in the first half of a shift, but taken within a few hours of bedtime could result in a longer time to fall asleep, reduced deep sleep and fewer sleep hours.

Getting home after your night shift

• Do you need to drive? You are at higher risk of having a car accident if you drive after a night shift. If public transport, carpooling or cabs aren’t practical, vary your route home so that you’re less likely to be driving on ‘autopilot’. If you’re very tired, take a short nap before setting off.

• Daylight is a signal to the body to stay awake. Wear dark glasses on the way home to encourage the production of melatonin and prepare the body for sleep.

Protecting your sleep after a night shift

• Follow the same routine to prepare for bed on day or night shifts. This will encourage pattern recognition and get the body ready for sleep – a light snack, a warm bath, brushing your teeth, soothing music, relaxation exercises or meditation could be part of a wind down routine.

• Avoid having a clock or alarm clock where you can see it during your rest time. Looking at the time may make you feel anxious.

• Use blackout curtains or drapes to make your bedroom as dark as possible. Alternatively, a good eye mask may do the trick.

• If you live in a noisy environment, look at soundproofing your bedroom with double-glazing, carpets, heavy curtains and even wall insulation. Ear plugs could also help to preserve your peace and quiet.

• Keep a visible record of your sleep and work schedule somewhere so your partner, family or housemates can see it, so that they don’t inadvertently wake you up.

Recovering between shifts

• Try and find time for exercise. If you can stay physically fit, your body will be better able to cope with changes to the body clock, and you’ll feel less fatigued overall.

• If you’re trying to return to a natural day shift pattern, remember that bright light boosts alertness. Light alarm clocks and light boxes that mimic the sun’s spectrum and intensity can help to reset wake cycles (aim for ~2500 lux vs. normal lighting of ~150 lux).

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