More than 15 million Americans work irregular schedules such as evening shifts, night shifts, or rotating shifts. They include doctors, nurses, factory workers, police officers, airport personnel, customer service representatives, and many more.
While night shift work is a crucial need in our 24/7 society, employees working these shifts are subjected to a variety of health risks over the short and long term. These health risks mostly stem from disruptions in a night shift worker’s circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is the natural biological clock in the body that plays a critical role in regulating and maintaining important bodily processes such as our hormonal cycles, eating patterns, and sleep/wake cycles.
When night shift workers adopt a schedule that runs counter to this natural rhythm, they are predisposed to cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, gastrointestinal issues, diabetes, and even cancer. Indeed, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) went so far as to classify night shift work as a “Class 2A” carcinogen.
To make matters worse, approximately 10-40% of shift workers experience what’s called Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD), a circadian rhythm disruption that is characterized by excessive sleepiness, unrestful sleep, and work-related drowsiness.
The accumulation of these symptoms can drastically impair work performance, including greater incidents of poor memory, slower reaction times, and more work-related errors. Apart from the health effects, third shift workers commonly report engaging less in social activities, which can further contribute to mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
With all of this in mind, there is thankfully quite a lot a third shift worker can do to minimize the negative impact that this type of work can cause on the brain and body. We’ll explore some of the most evidence-based sleep hygiene tips that can go a long way towards helping you achieve higher-quality sleep and, ultimately, better performance at work.
Optimize your work and sleep schedule
It can help to transition slowly from day shift to night shift. By phase-forward scheduling, you let your body slowly adjust from the day shift, to swing shift, then finally to the night shift.
Additionally, if possible, replacing the standard graveyard shift to a casino shift can help so that you are able to drive home before it is light outside. These shifts normally end around 3 or 4 am rather than 7 am like a normal night shift.
Once you’ve given your body a chance to adjust, keep a consistent sleep schedule to the best of your ability. This includes both when you are on call and on off-days. It may not always be possible for swing shift workers, but having a consistent sleep/wake schedule helps reinforce a healthy circadian rhythm and can lead to a better night’s sleep.
Strategically control light exposure
Our circadian rhythm is controlled primarily by light. There are cells in the eye that tell the brain what time of day it is, which then influences physiological processes that govern sleep and wake times.
Before going into and during the first half of a night shift, try exposing yourself to bright light, particularly blue light. This can be done effectively with light-emitting goggles or light therapy boxes.
On the other hand, try to minimize light exposure towards the end of the shift and on the journey home. Light disturbs the natural production of melatonin in the brain, the hormone which makes us feel sleepy. This can be done with blue-light blocking glasses. Go to bed as soon as you get off your night shift to avoid prolonged light exposure.
Naps can be a highly effective tool during the night shift. They can improve memory, performance, and alertness, as well as prevent drowsy driving on the way back home from the shift. If possible, make time for short nap breaks throughout the shift, or try napping right before the shift starts.
Naps should be either twenty minutes or ninety minutes (the latter reflects one full sleep cycle). Just be sure to avoid napping too close to bedtime, as this might make it harder to fall asleep and get a full seven to nine hours of sleep.
Maintain a healthy diet
Sleep deprivation associated with third shift work can cause an increase in hormones that make us feel hungry. This increase in appetite commonly results in cravings for foods that are energy-rich but unhealthy, such as high fat or high sugar snacks.
It can help to bring healthy meals and snacks to your shift, including plenty of fruits and vegetables and high protein foods. Try to eat a healthy main meal an hour or two before the shift starts to curb your hunger and prevent those vending machine runs. Ideally, avoid any large meals towards the end of the shift, which may disturb sleep later.
Fitting an exercise routine into the week sometime during the day can make a tremendous impact on staving off the negative effects of night shift work. Exercise can improve sleep by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, and also results in better quality sleep in general. It has the added benefit of being an effective antidepressant and helps us maintain a healthy weight.
Just be sure to work out no later than a couple of hours before bed, since it can elevate body temperature and make it harder to fall asleep.
Avoid alcohol and stimulants
Alcohol may promote sleepiness initially but often results in fragmented sleep and impaired REM sleep. Avoiding alcohol and trying other natural sleep aids can help ensure better quality rest.
Stimulants such as caffeine can help promote alertness early in the shift but shouldn’t be used too close to bedtime. Refrain from caffeine in the six hours before bedtime.
Become a sleep pro by optimizing the sleep environment
Keep your sleep environment cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable. Try setting the bedroom temperature to between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit. Our body must naturally cool down before we fall into a sleep cycle, so keeping the bedroom cool is a strong sleep signal for your body.
To keep the bedroom dark, you can use night masks and blackout curtains which will eliminate any ambient light that can hamper melatonin production and/or disturb sleep. Be sure to put to all electronic devices on night mode in the lead up to bed and sleep mode during your sleeping hours. Additionally, using earplugs or white noise machines are great ways to remove any daytime noise that can interfere with sleep.
Keep the bedroom comfortable by investing in a comfy mattress and comfy sheets. There is no feeling like settling down in some quality Egyptian cotton sheets after a long night shift.
The bottom line
Simply put, night shift workers work at a time when their bodies are physiologically prepared for sleep. Towards the end of the night, these workers have a lot of sleep debt, often fighting against sleep deprivation. In the long haul, the circadian misalignment caused by night shift work is linked to multiple negative health consequences.
Fortunately, night shift workers can employ these strategies to minimize the physical and psychological impact of their irregular work hours and re-adjust their circadian rhythm. These sleep hygiene tips not only help you personally to stay healthy but they will also go a long way towards enhancing your productivity and boosting the quality of your work.