Sleeping Well for Shift Workers

What do the Chernobyl accident, Exxon Valdez Oil spill, and Challenger explosion have in common? They were all caused by sleep deprivation.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, around 20% of workers in industrialized nations work a night shift or rotating shift. This is disconcerting, because our bodies’ sleep schedule operates on a timed clock, typically determined by our exposure to light.

Sleeping Well for Shift Workers

In the average, healthy body. light stimulates the circadian rhythm leaving us more active in the daytime and inducing sleepiness at night. The circadian rhythm regulates a person’s body temperature, hormone levels, hunger, and sleep.

Unfortunately, working a night shift or rotating shift makes it incredibly difficult to maintain a circadian rhythm, which can lead to shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). Aside from regulating our general mental focus and alertness, a consistent sleep schedule helps protect our bodies from serious long-term illnesses.

SWSD Physiological Effects

We’ve all had sleepless nights and maybe even periods of stress or emotional trauma that have inhibited our sleep schedule entirely. For anyone falling asleep reading this, I’m sure you understand that sleepiness can leave us feeling irritated and maybe even a little dull, affecting our ability to maintain relationships important to us.

SWSD Physiological Effects

Sleepiness also affects your work performance, which creates safety hazards and potentially leaves you vulnerable to being fired, which is especially unfortunate when the reason is due to overworking yourself or being too tired from work.

A lack of sleep can also weaken the immune system and raise your chances of being sick. Other more serious health problems can result from sleep deprivation:

  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Increased stress levels
  • Greater risk of heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Increased insulin resistance

SWSD also has more observable effects, such as a decreased level of concentration, excessive fatigue, and even short term memory loss. People who do sleep during the daytime may also be more prone to wake up at slight noises, such as people moving outside their room. Individuals will often also experience a lighter sleep, meaning they won’t feel rejuvenated when they wake up.

While many would argue that you should probably get another job or even cut down your working hours, it’s not always that easy. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to introduce and adapted sleep schedule and maintain your circadian rhythm.

Manage your Sleep Schedule

Manage your Sleep Schedule

  • If your shifts change, remember to make sleep a priority, even if you can not establish a regular sleep schedule. Ask your friends and family to respect your schedule and not to disturb you while you sleep. If you’re working a rotating shift, ask for the next shift hours to proceed the one you just worked.
  • If you always work nights, maintain a consistent sleep schedule, even on nights off, whenever possible. Ask for nights off in between shifts to catch up on sleep during your days off. Avoid overtime if you can help it and focus on your body’s well-being.
  • Hang up heavy “black-out” curtains that block out light while you sleep.
  • Expose yourself to bright light at work to stimulate your circadian rhythm. Avoid bright or fluorescent light before you go to bed to maintain proper melatonin levels. Even your alarm clock or cell phone lights can make a difference, so be aware of them, as well.
  • Manage your circadian rhythm by going outside into the sunlight when you wake up to signal to your body that it’s time to wake up.
  • Eat three healthy meals a day, properly spaced, to establish your body’s hunger schedule.
  • Nap for about 90 minutes before you show up for a night shift to be more alert. If possible, take a short twenty minute nap or coffee nap at work with some comfortable headphones to help you wake up naturally and refreshed. Sleep Phones are great for this, because they were designed by an actual doctor.
  • Avoid caffeine toward the end of your shift and before you go to bed, as well as alcohol. Alcohol will disrupt your sleep after four hours and result in a light sleep. Avoid sleeping pills if you need to – they only serve a short term solution.

Stick to the Routine

Some psychologists believe that night shift workers may never adjust to a proper sleep schedule, though some contend this claim. Take these steps to improve your overall wellness before you absolutely need to find a new profession. I think of Ernest Hemingway when he said, “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”