For people who work the night shift, getting enough high quality sleep can be a significant challenge. 

Night shifts often interfere with a person’s circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycle that tells the body when it’s time to sleep or to be awake. Circadian rhythms synchronize with exposure to light, with darkness serving as a sleep cue and daylight signaling that it’s time to wake up.

For this reason, people who work night shifts often feel sleepy when they need to work and alert when they want to sleep. These challenges can have serious health and safety consequences, so it’s important for people who work night shifts to carefully plan their sleep schedules and adopt strategies to get the sleep they need.

What is the Ideal Sleep Schedule for Night Shift Workers?

The best sleep schedule for night shift workers varies according to whether night shifts happen on a short-term or long-term basis.

  • Permanent night shift: Experts recommend that people who permanently work the night shift maintain a consistent sleep schedule, even on days off. While it is best to sleep in a single seven or more hour period, individuals with daytime responsibilities can sleep in two blocks. The first should happen at a consistent time every day, and the second can move as needed.
  • Rotating or irregular night shifts: People who work the night shift on a rotating or irregular basis should go to bed as soon as they get home from work and sleep for as long as their bodies will allow. If necessary, they can eat a light meal first. Taking a nap immediately before the next shift may also help workers stay awake on the job and limit their sleep debt.

What sleep schedule is preferable and possible may also be influenced by a person’s tolerance for the demands of night shifts, the amount of sleep they need, and their family and social obligations. 

Tips for Getting Good Sleep as a Shift Worker

Many people who work night shifts feel tired at work and have trouble sleeping at home. That said, there are a number of steps you can take to increase alertness during night shifts and improve your ability to sleep during the day.

  • Use light and darkness to your advantage: In the first half of your shift—or if you are feeling sleepy—expose yourself to bright light. During the second half of your shift, avoid bright light and consider wearing sunglasses that block blue light, especially if you leave work after the sun is up.
  • Take naps: Napping immediately before your shift may be helpful. If your workplace allows and provides space for napping at work, you may also benefit from taking brief naps during your shift when you feel tired.
  • Consume caffeine strategically: Drinking a cup of coffee or another caffeinated beverage at the beginning of your night shift may help you stay awake. However, avoid caffeine in the second half of your shift so that it doesn’t interfere with your ability to sleep when you get home.
  • Create a good sleeping environment: Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. You may benefit from wearing an eye mask, installing light-blocking curtains, or using a white noise machine.
  • Prioritize winding down: Decline invitations to socialize or go out at the end of a shift. Avoid alcohol and electronics, which can interfere with sleep, and engage in a soothing bedtime ritual, such as taking a warm bath or practicing meditation.
  • Seek support from family and friends: Talk to your family, housemates, and friends about your shift work and your sleep schedule so that they can minimize disruptions to your sleep.

Because you may feel sleepy at the end of a shift, experts recommend securing a ride home or using public transportation to avoid putting yourself and others at risk of an accident.

If you try sleep hygiene strategies and still have trouble getting the sleep you need and staying alert at work, you may have a condition called shift work disorder. Talk to your doctor about additional steps you can take to ensure that you remain safe, healthy, and well-rested as a night shift worker.

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References
2 Sources

  1. Cheng, P., & Drake, C. L. (2023, October 11). Sleep-wake disturbances in shift workers. In C. A. Goldstein (Ed.). UpToDate., Retrieved August 22, 2023, from

    https://www.uptodate.com/contents/sleep-wake-disturbances-in-shift-workers
  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2021, October 12). NIOSH Training for Nurses on Shift Work and Long Hours., Retrieved August 22, 2023, from

    https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/work-hour-training-for-nurses/default.html

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