Shift work isn’t easy. You need to be active and alert at night when your body is designed to sleep — you then need to sleep during the day when you’re wired to be awake. Nightshift workers get an average of one – two hours less sleep per 24 hours than day workers.
To avoid fatigue, shift workers should aim to get as close to 7-8 hours sleep as possible (the average amount of sleep as a normal adult – regardless of whether they work shift work or not).
Losing 2 hours of sleep a day for four days (or nights) has the same effect as missing an entire night’s worth of sleep. This kind of sleep deprivation increases the risk of a microsleep – uncontrollable and brief episodes of sleep that can occur when a shift worker is trying to stay awake while working or driving. Research has shown shift drivers are 6 times more likely to be in a fatigue related road accident than other workers.
Tips for better sleep
- Ensure that you have a comfortable bed and pillow and your room is clear of clutter
- Use curtains with blockout backing or blinds to cover the windows and reduce the light level in your bedroom during the day
- Make sure the temperature in the bedroom isn’t too warm — cool conditions help you get to sleep and stay asleep. The recommended room temperature is between 18-22 degrees celsius
- Introduce white noise to mask external noise. A fan or soothing music will create a constant sound that lulls out external noises.
- Remove technology from the room, mobile devices can keep you awake or waken you from a deep sleep
- Let friends, family and neighbours know your work schedule so that your sleep is undisturbed
- Avoid smoking. Research suggests that smokers have less restful sleep compared to non-smokers. This may be because nicotine is a stimulant.
- Think about what you eat and drink before you go to sleep. Avoid eating a heavy meal or consuming caffeinated drinks before heading to bed.
- You may need time to unwind between work and bedtime. Some shift workers prefer to go straight to bed, while others find it’s better to read or watch a little television to wind down first.
Tips for different types of shift work.
Fast shift rotations (changing shifts every few days):
- Soak up some sunshine – before and after your night shift
- Avoid heavy meals at night
- Have a nap at home, preferably in the early afternoon, before your night shift
- Have a 20–30-minute nap during your night shift if possible and allow at least 10 minutes to wake up before returning to work duties.
Slow shift rotations (changing shifts every week or so):
- Go to bed as soon as you get home from night shift.
- Have an afternoon nap if you didn’t get enough sleep in the morning.
- Avoid napping during the night shift unless you’re very sleepy — if you do nap, keep it short, no more than 20–30 minutes
- Try to avoid exposure to early-morning daylight on the way home. Wearing sunglasses may help
- Eat three regular meals a day including ‘lunch’ during your night shift
- Find an alternative to driving yourself home if you find yourself becoming sleepy during your commute.
- After your last night shift, adjust your body clock by sleeping only 2-3 hours on the first morning, and then get a good sleep that night and on the following nights
- Get plenty of exposure to daylight (sunlight) on your days off as this will help adjust your body clock to a daytime setting.
Permanent night shift
Permanent night workers / or those returning to night shift after time off can utilise the slow shift rotation tips mentioned above. In addition to those points, the key to surviving night shift is to try and stay with your night schedule as much as possible:
- Go to bed later, and wake up later (eg: go to bed after midnight and wake up late in the morning).
- Avoid morning sunlight – stay indoors as much as possible, and if not – wearing sunglasses can help reduce the effects of daylight.
Further information Better Health Channel. Shiftwork and health effects: www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Shiftwork_health_effects