Work schedules that fall anywhere outside the hours of 7 am to 6 pm are considered shift work. These schedules may consist of fixed hours, rotating or split shifts, or irregular work times. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 16% of full-time salary and wage workers in the U.S. worked non-daytime shifts in 2017 and 2018. Recently, many employees have also been forced to take on shift work in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Common occupations that require shift work include:
Shift work can be demanding when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, especially for those who work night, early morning, or rotating shifts. Over time these employees may develop shift work disorder, a condition characterized by insomnia symptoms when they attempt to sleep and excessive tiredness while they are at work. Shift work disorder not only causes cognitive impairments and physical complications but also affects occupational performance and makes workers more prone to errors and accidents.
Getting a good night’s rest and feeling alert upon waking is essential for any shift worker, regardless of their specific profession. For many, adopting a consistent sleep schedule and creating a bedroom environment conducive to rest can have a huge impact.
Sleep consistency is key for many employees working night shift schedules. If you wake up at 5 pm for your night shift and normally go to sleep at 8 am after getting home from work, then you also should maintain this sleep-wake schedule on your days off.
Obviously, this can be difficult to accomplish. Make sure significant others, children, roommates, and anyone else sharing your roof understands the importance of your designated sleep time. They should not wake you up unless there’s a true emergency.
Light and noise exposure may be other issues for sleeping during the day. Try drawing the shades or sleeping with an eye mask if your bedroom tends to be bright during the day. Earplugs and white noise machines can be effective at blocking outside sounds. Unless you are on call, consider turning your phone off while you sleep.
Rather than immediately going to bed, some shift workers prefer to stay up for a few hours after arriving home as one might do after a day at work on a traditional 9-5 schedule. This way, they can wake up closer to the time when they start their next night shift. For others, a split-nap schedule is more effective. This entails napping for a few hours after getting home in the morning and then sleeping for longer in the hours leading up to the next shift’s start time.
Before going to bed, consider a hot shower or bath, meditation, or another relaxing activity. Consuming alcohol before bed can lead to sleep disruptions. Although alcohol has sedative properties that help you fall asleep more easily, you may experience sleep disturbances or fragmented sleep as your body breaks down the alcohol. Some shift workers take melatonin supplements to fall asleep during the day, but you should consult with your doctor or another licensed physician before taking melatonin because it can have an impact on your sleep-wake rhythms.
Finding the right system for you may require some trial and error. The key is getting enough sleep every 24 hours. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of daily sleep for most adults between the ages of 18 and 64, and seven to eight hours of sleep for most adults 65 and older. Some adults can get by on slightly less or may need slightly more sleep, but we don’t recommend fewer than five to six hours or more than 10 to 11 hours of sleep per day.
While you are at work during an irregular shift, strategies to stay refreshed and alert may include:
Fixed shift work creates plenty of sleep challenges for employees, but rotating shifts that involve different start and times for shifts during a given week or month can exacerbate these issues. Rotating shifts vary by workplace, but some of the most common rotating schedules for employees include the following:
Shift workers with rotating schedules should prepare for shift changes by adjusting their sleep times. Let’s say you are currently working a day shift and planning to rotate to a night shift the following week. You should gradually delay your bedtime by one or two hours each night a few days prior to starting the night shift if possible. This will help you get enough rest and avoid sudden changes.
Some rotating shifts are better for sleep than others. For example, rotating from day to afternoon to night shifts is a more natural progression that is easier on your body compared to rotating in the opposite direction or in random patterns. Rotating shifts every two to three days may also be better for workers than rotating their shifts every five to seven days, and too many consecutive night shifts can be problematic.
If you work a rotating schedule and the routine is wearing you down, consider having a word with your supervisor. They may be able to adjust your shifts or rotations and provide a schedule that is better for your sleep schedule.