Don’t let poor sleep ruin your life

How to get good sleep, even if you’re a shift worker

It is easier to work shifts in your 20s and 30s because your sleep is more resilient the younger you are. Fast forward to your 40s and it becomes more difficult to cope with frequent changes to shift patterns. Fortunately, there are various techniques that can help you to maintain your physical, mental and emotional health when working shifts.

Your bedroom could be keeping you awake

To be able to sleep regularly and consistently, especially as a shift worker, your bedroom needs to be dark, quiet and cool. We’re sure you’ve heard this advice before, but that’s because the science doesn’t change on this, and it’s one of the most important factors for good quality sleep.

To achieve darkness during daylight hours, fit heavy curtains or blackout blinds. If this isn’t possible, use an eye mask and cover up any light sources within the bedroom.

The day is, by nature, noisier than the night so consider using earplugs if you need to sleep during the day because you’re working a night shift.

A bohemian bedroom

Talk to your partner, children or housemates. Make sure they understand how important it is that you sleep well. These chats can help reduce noise levels in the house if/when you are trying to sleep during the day, before a night shift.

  • Your bedroom should be cool, dark and quiet.
  • Consider wearing earplugs if you’re trying to sleep during the day.
  • If you live with others, talk to them and remind them that you need quiet to sleep well.

Sleep is triggered by a drop in body temperature

To get good sleep, you need to lose approximately one degree of body temperature 1. We cool down naturally during the night but the body temperature is higher during the day. To sleep during the day you need to reduce your body temperature. You can do this by:

  • avoiding eating big, sugary, fatty meals before sleep.
  • having a warm shower before bed.
  • sleeping in a bedroom that gets the least exposure to sunlight.

How to make shift work more tolerable

We know it may not be easy, but forcing yourself to take short, structured breaks every 2-3 hours and taking a walk or getting something to eat and drink will help you.

Choose the right foods

Poor sleep and shift work increase the desire for sugary and fatty foods. If your workplace doesn’t offer healthy food, then plan to bring something nutritious with you to work to resist the temptation to eat sweet and fatty foods.

Watch what you drink

Many shift workers rely on caffeinated drinks to stay awake and work efficiently during the night. However, this can make it more difficult to fall asleep once the shift has finished. To reduce the chances of this happening, avoid caffeinated drinks at least five hours before your intended bedtime.

Shift workers should also avoid drinking alcohol to ‘help them get to sleep’. This is because getting to sleep is rarely the issue. Alcohol will affect the quality of sleep and make staying asleep less likely, compounding the common problems experienced by night workers.

A triptych showing some sweets, a cup of coffee and french press, and a selection of alcoholic drinks

Planning meals around shifts

When you work a standard 9 to 5 day, you usually wake up a couple of hours before the start of your shift. After you finish your day’s work you come home and have dinner and then it is several hours before you go to sleep, during which time you should be relaxing and winding down before bed.

When you work rapidly rotating shifts, this sort of pattern is rarely possible. Following a night shift, the temptation is to eat dinner at breakfast time and then try to fall asleep almost immediately. It is hard enough to sleep during daylight hours, but the usual advice is to avoid a large meal for 3-4 hours before bed because the work involved in digesting a meal will disturb your sleep.

If you cannot avoid going to bed immediately after a night shift because you are sleepy, then try to not to eat a large sugary or fatty meal before sleep. Try sleeping once in the period immediately after your shift and then again before your next night shift - with a big meal in between.

Preparing for sleep after a night shift

You may also consider putting a ‘do not disturb’ note on the front door explaining that you are a keyworker, working shifts, and that you should only be disturbed if the matter is urgent.

Put your phone on silent. Make sure to switch off alerts/notifications on your mobile phone before you try to sleep.

A pair of hands holding a mobile phone which is displaying an off switch

Transitioning between shifts

We’re not going to lie, this is difficult. However, there are ways to manage this better:

  • If you feel sleepy then go to sleep, whatever time this may be. There is no point trying to go to sleep if you are not sleepy. Equally, if you are sleepy then your body and brain want to sleep. The critical thing is to listen to your body.
  • Don’t expect to switch from night shift to a typical day. For the first day of your rest period you will need to get some sleep during the day. The more hours you try to switch at any one time, the harder it will be to adjust.
  • When moving from a day to a night shift, it may be beneficial on the day before starting a block of nights to try and have a long period of sleep in the late afternoon or early evening.
Two windows, side by side

Napping and the body clock

A correctly set body clock is the most critical factor in ensuring good sleep and proper functioning during the day. Within the limits of what is possible, given work patterns and domestic routines, shift workers should try to be as regular in their sleeping patterns as possible.

Naps shouldn’t be part of the shift worker’s overall sleep strategy - they should be used as a ‘last resort’ to catch up on essential sleep. A short sleep may help in the afternoon or evening before a first night shift but, otherwise, it’s best to plan for sleep so that you can avoid naps - if you possibly can.

Unless you are on a rapidly rotating shift pattern it is probably best to avoid napping during the ‘lunch break’ of a night shift. Naps confuse the body clock and can make it harder to sleep well. In addition, if you nap regularly, you will probably suffer from ‘sleep inertia’. Sleep inertia is the feeling of grogginess that people experience after being awoken from a short sleep. Studies have found that sleep inertia is particularly severe at 4am so it’s best to avoid a nap at this time as it may actually make you more likely to be groggy afterwards.

An alarm clock on a shelf

Putting it all together

There are some simple strategies that you can apply to make getting enough good quality sleep around shift work easier. After a long shift, it can be easy to slip back into old habits if you don’t have a plan, so it will be important to plan ahead. But you don’t need to change everything at once. As a starting point, make sure to:

  • keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet
  • wind down properly before bed
  • avoid large meals before bed

If you’ve followed all of the guidance outlined above and you’re still struggling with your sleep, then please get in touch to let us know more about your problem so that we can help.

References


  • Barrett, J., Lack, L. and Morris, M., 1993. The sleep-evoked decrease of body temperature. Sleep, 16(2), pp.93-99.

Further information