Sleep Tips For Shift Workers

Having worked shift work for many years, I can tell you that it is no fun trying to get to sleep during the day. Worse still, trying to sleep on the weekends when others are at home making noise and the neighbours are doing their gardening. I naively thought that it would be 'fun' to go to be when others were at work! No, only on cold wet days.

There are two types of shift workers; those who work permanent night shifts and those who work rotating shifts. Of those who I have spoken with, people who work permanent night shift find it a little easier to manage their sleep patterns because they have a routine however I am yet to meet one of them who gets a good sleep every night (day). In fact, most will often sleep at night time on their days off to catch up on lost sleep across the week.

This article will focus on those who work rotating shifts; police, nurses, firefighters, and the like. We can thank science for giving us the progressive shift - where you rotate forward through the shifts from day to evening to night rosters. Previously, we worked a hellish random roster to suit the employer.

Most sleep experts will say it is important to try and stick as close as possible to the normal sleep cycle - 11pm to 7am pattern. Very difficult to do when you work across an entire night. So, should you sleep as soon as you get home or stay up and sleep in the afternoon?

The answer is 'yes', either or depending on YOU. Get to sleep as soon as you get home and then sleep again immediately prior to work. That works for a lot of my former colleagues. However, because we are not all the same, (physiologically, psychologically, and sociologically) what works for me may not work for you.

The answer is trial and error then adhering to a consistent pattern. And patience, plenty of patience. I can't stress (poor word choice) enough the importance of getting into a pattern of behaviour even if it is a 3-week pattern.

Based on all of my readings and my own trial and error, here are some sleep tips for those who work on rotating shifts. Use all, some, or one of these and see how they work for you;

  • Do not drink caffeinated drinks after the start of your shift. One cup at the beginning of work is enough to get you through. Also avoid large meals or food high in sugar. When you eat affects your sleep patterns so no food at least four hours before going to sleep. Drink plenty of water for the first half of the shift, if you drink too much across the entire shift you will need to get up to the toilet when you do eventually go to bed.
  • Before finishing work, ensure all that you need to do is done so that you won't worry about it later when trying to sleep. Also, make a list of what you have to do the next shift so that you can relax knowing that you have your list.
  • If you can, have a shower at work before leaving. Water is a cleanser, as you shower think about how the water is washing away the 'dirt' from the shift. Do this regardless of the shift you worked – early, late, or night time.
  • Wear sunglasses when driving home to minimise the production of melatonin from sunlight. Also, do not use smart phones or tablets whatsoever as this also produces melatonin. It takes about four hours from the time melatonin is produced in your brain until it starts to work and make you sleepy.
  • When to sleep - sit and relax for half an hour when you get home. A glass of warm milk is beneficial as dairy products are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps in the production of the sleep inducing brain chemicals, serotonin and melatonin. Eating a small piece of solid protein will aid in keeping you asleep, for me it’s a piece of cheese.
  • The cave (room) where you sleep must be cold (15 to 18 degrees C), must be dark (blinds AND curtains) and quiet (double glazing or wear ear plugs). No phones, no clocks, no TVs. Reading something light can assist in the relaxation process as can listening to soft music.
  • Focus your mind on nothing if you can or on one thing if you can't. Your mind will wander, keep bringing it back to that one thing. What that one ‘thing' is should be something that makes you happy, your happy place.
  • If you wake, stay in bed. If you get up to go to the toilet you will be hit by daylight which will wake your brain. Lay in bed for as long as you can until you start to get anxious, then get up. If you haven't had enough sleep, then try to get another few hours immediately before you head off to work. If you must eat, eat small. Your biggest meal should be at the beginning of your shift.
  • There are plenty of other tips for invoking sleep such as sensory triggers (lavender), relaxation exercises (yoga), drinks (camomile tea) and relaxation exercises (meditation) that can help. Read, research, and experiment yourself to see what works for you. You will probably fall asleep reading some of them!

Stick to the pattern you settle into for at least three full shift rotations and then change something small in your pattern. Your brain doesn’t like big changes when it comes to sleep. If you want a few more tips on sleep, send me a message and I will provide you with additional information.

Good night (day), sleep well.