Roughly 16% of wage and salary employees in the U.S. work a non-daytime schedule, including 6% who work evenings and 4% who work nights. Adapting to these shifts can be difficult at first because they go against natural circadian rhythms that guide your sleep cycle. As a result, evening and night employees often feel more tired at work than their daytime counterparts.
Thankfully, there are certain measures these workers can take in order to feel more alert and focused while they’re on the clock. Our tips for how to stay awake during night shift can also help you avoid sleep disorders commonly associated with this type of work, such as insomnia and shift work disorder.
Tip #1: Find Time to Nap
Napping during an evening or night shift can provide a much-needed energy boost that will sustain you until it’s time to clock out. The trick is not napping for too long. A nap lasting 10 to 20 minutes is considered ideal. This short duration ensures several minutes of uninterrupted rest, but you’ll also avoid falling into deep sleep. Waking up during deep sleep often leads to feelings of grogginess and disorientation.
Scheduled break times are great for napping since they also tend to last about 10 to 20 minutes. You may also want to consider a quick nap at the end of your shift if you have a long commute and/or drive to and from work. A large number of vehicular accidents from drowsy driving occur between the hours of midnight and 6am, and involve single drivers.
Finding a quiet place to get some shuteye during work can be difficult if your office does not have a dedicated nap room. If this is the case, we recommend using an unoccupied room or office at your workplace, or even your vehicle. Consider bringing an eye mask, ear plugs, and any other favorite sleep items (such as a pillow) from home to improve the nap environment.
Napping at home, right before your night shift begins, can also improve alertness during your shift.
Tip #2: Don’t Consume Too Much Caffeine
Many people who work evening or night shifts rely on caffeine to keep them alert and refreshed. However, too much coffee or caffeinated soda can negatively affect your sleep after the shift ends.
If you prefer some caffeine for evening or night shift work, we recommend a moderate amount during the first few hours of your shift. You should avoid caffeine within three to four hours of your scheduled bedtime that day.
Some shift workers use “coffee naps” for an additional kick. Caffeine will take effect roughly 15 to 20 minutes after you consume it, leaving you just enough time for a refreshing nap. If timed correctly, you’ll start to feel the effects of caffeine right after you wake up.
Tip #3: Eat Right
Following a balanced, healthy diet can be challenging if you work evening or night shifts. Additionally, people with night or rotating work schedules are more susceptible to gastrointestinal problems than those who work during the day. These issues may include indigestion, heartburn, stomach aches, and loss of appetite.
Recommended foods and beverages for night workers include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Lean meat, poultry, and fish
- Bread, crackers, and other grains
- Dairy products
If you need a snack during work, nuts and fruit are more nourishing than junk food such as candy or soft drinks. You should also avoid greasy food.
In addition to eating the right things, you should also strive to eat each meal at the same times, including days you don’t work. If you work an afternoon to evening shift, plan your largest meal for midday before work, rather than during your shift. If you work nights, eat a small amount during your shift and follow this up with a moderate breakfast. This prevents you from becoming hungry while you sleep and can also cut down on trips to the bathroom.
Lastly, be sure to relax during each meal. This allows digestive processes to run their course and help you avoid gastrointestinal discomfort while you work.
Tip #4: Plan a Sleep Schedule
It is important to establish a sleep routine, and to stick to that routine even on days you aren’t working evenings. Initially, try different patterns of work and sleep to see what works best for you. For example, if working nights, consider staying awake when you first get home after work, and sleep later in the day awakening right before next evening shift. Alternatively, you may find sleeping a few hours in the morning when you first get home, and then a few hours later in the day, right before the next shift more conducive to your schedule.
Other Tips for Staying Awake on Night Shift
In addition to napping at work, consuming a moderate amount of caffeine, and following a balanced diet, other tips for how to stay awake for a night shift include:
- Keep your workstation brightly lit: Your circadian rhythms are based on natural cycles of light and darkness; the release of certain hormones help you feel alert during the day and sleepy after the sun goes down. Some studies have shown exposure to bright light at work can help your body adapt to a non-traditional sleep-wake schedule. Lights or lamps with a light intensity that falls between 1,200 and 10,000 are considered most effective. Some find that exposure to these light sources for three to six hours during a night shift can be helpful, while others feel more refreshed with intermittent exposure of 20 minutes for each hour of their shift.
- Exercise at your workplace: If you don’t feel like napping during your scheduled break times, try taking a jog around the building or hitting the office weight room instead. Even a small amount of exercise can revitalize you for an hour or so.
- If possible, customize your schedule: Shift work of any kind can be difficult to adjust to, but some schedules are easier on your body than others. A fixed schedule that entails the same hours for each shift is often less challenging than a rotating schedule of different shift start and end times. If you must work a rotating schedule, see if your boss can schedule you to rotate day to afternoon to evening to night shifts in that order. This progression is more in line with circadian rhythms than a schedule that rotates in the opposite direction or in a random pattern. Additionally, rotating shifts every five to seven days can be tricky because you’ll be switching hours just as your body begins to acclimate to its current shift. More frequent rotations of every two to three days do not cause the same level of circadian disruption, whereas less frequent rotations of every two to four weeks allow you more time to adjust to your current schedule.
- Be extra careful: Sleep-deprived evening and night shift workers are more prone to errors and accidents, both at the workplace and while commuting back and forth from home. This is especially true for people who are new to these shifts, or those who are working longer hours than normal. Make sure you are fully alert and focused when working, and keep an eye on your colleagues to ensure they are also being safe.
- Talk to a doctor about melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone your body produces in the evening to induce feelings of sleepiness, but it is also a supplement you can take to try and improve sleep. However, studies have shown mixed results on the effectiveness of melatonin supplementation on sleep disorder related to night shift work.
- Optimize your sleep environment: keep the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Consider using an eye mask or blackout shades, wearing earplugs, or utilizing a white noise machine. Turn off your phone and ask others in the home not to disturb you during your planned sleep time.
- Create a solid bedtime routine: Give yourself time to relax and unwind before bed. Avoid alcohol and screen time.
You should consider help from a sleep specialist or other licensed professional if symptoms of excessive sleepiness persist longer than 3 months. They may help identify a treatment strategy and/or strategies that work for you.
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