A shift worker’s essential ‘ Surviving Night Shift 101’

By Dr Pushpa Chandra

Apr 05

Are you working demanding schedules, frequent night shifts, extended hours and substantial overtime? Certain professions all but guarantee that you'll spend some time working the overnight hours. Nurses and doctors, police officers, firefighters and dispatch are just some of the professions in which getting to work during the day is not always an option.

Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep patterns, along with added job stress result in fatigue, which affects cognition, reaction time, alertness and safety for all. Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) is characterized by excessive sleepiness during nighttime work and insomnia during daytime sleep periods. It is caused by a circadian rhythm disruption to our natural 24-hour cycle that regulates sleeping, waking, digestion, secretion of adrenalin, body temperature, blood pressure and many other vital functions, including emotions.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder #SWSD and job stress result in fatigue, which affects cognition, reaction time, alertness and safety for all. 

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The number one complaint of those suffering from SWSD is excessive sleepiness, but many others include increased risk to heart disease stroke, cancer, obesity, anxiety, depression and hormonal imbalances.

But working the night shift isn't all bad. If you follow a few key tips you can not only survive, but thrive.

There is no magic cure but here is a ‘Surviving Night Shift 101’.

1. Nap Constructively

Working during the night shift can be a big adjustment. Being awake and at work during the hours you're usually at sleep can feel disorienting. Your lowest period of energy and cognition is between 2 and 5am. Don't leave important tasks to be performed during this period. Do them earlier in the night shift.

Make sure to allow yourself constructive naps whenever possible, particularly during the first weeks and months of making the transition to working the night shift. The key to strategic napping is to stick to the right length: a 26-minute nap doubles your productivity! Some people feel groggy after a nap but these feelings usually go away within 3 to 15 minutes, while the benefits of the nap may last for hours. For best results, try getting a 30-minute nap just before your shift. If your work permits, get a 10-minute nap a couple times during your shift as well.

The key to strategic napping on #nightshift is to stick to the right length: a 26-minute nap doubles your #productivity!

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2. Time Your Caffeine Right

There's nothing wrong with relying on a little bit of caffeine to get through working the night shift. In fact, most people need caffeine to get through working standard business hours, too. But you need to be careful about when you drink caffeine when you work at night. Aim to consume caffeine in the earlier half of your shift, then transition to water. Too much caffeine late in your shift will make it hard to sleep when you get out of work. Believe it or not, water can also help you perk up by fighting off sleepiness brought on by dehydration.

3. Don't Stop Moving

When you work in a job that requires you to be on your feet a lot, you probably look forward to the moments when you can sit down and rest. But you should resist the urge when you're working at night. Sit down only long enough to relieve physical pain. But when you feel overcome by a wave of sleepiness, that's when you need to get up and start moving around. Walk the halls, do stretches or jumping-jacks. Whatever you do, just keep moving. It will help keep you awake and help you avoid the common night-shifter's risk of weight gain.

When on #nightshift,  keep moving! It will help keep you #awake and help you avoid the risk of #weightgain.

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4. Eat Several Small Meals

You need to change the way you eat when you're working the night shift, too. Eating three big meals a day won't keep your energy levels steady enough to carry you all the way through a shift, especially if you're one of the many night crews who work 12-hour shifts. You should also avoid eating a large meal right before you go into work because your body will be focusing on digestion and that will make you more likely to feel sleepy.

Focus on getting several small meals every few hours. You'll feel best if each mini-meal is about 300 calories that combines protein and a complex carbohydrate. Cheese, whole-grain crackers and an apple are the right type of snack to keep your energy levels high enough to power you through a shift. Nuts are also a great snack. They boost the production of a chemical that keeps us awake (adrenalin). Avoid falling into the trap of relying on junk food like sodas, candy and chips that many people do when working the night shift. Foods that are high in sugar and refined flours will put you on a blood sugar roller coaster that will make you much more exhausted.

On #nightshift get small meals every few hours. To feel best: about 300 calories combining protein and a complex carbohydrate.

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After your shift, when you want to sleep, steel-cut oats (course oatmeal) with milk for breakfast may help.

5. Talk to People

Social isolation is one of the biggest drawbacks to working the night shift. After all, most people are sleeping during the hours that you are awake and at work. That's why it's especially important to talk to your coworkers and any patients or customers you encounter. Talking to people makes you feel connected and like you're a vital part of the world—which you are. Working the night shift will take a lot less of a toll on your physical and mental health if you're still connecting with people.

There's no doubt that working the night shift turns your life upside down. However, many people come to find that they actually prefer working during the overnight hours. The night shift is usually calmer and quieter and is therefore much less stressful than working during the day. If you follow self-care tips and focus on your own wellness, you too may come to love working nights.

6. Avoid long commutes

If you absolutely have to, take a nap before you drive. Even better, arrange to get picked up. Two thirds of drivers who work shifts complain about being too drowsy to drive and night shift workers are more prone to traffic accidents on their way home after a shift.

7. Get restorative sleep

Cocoon yourself in cold and a dark room. Light-blocking curtains are crucial. The sleep hormone, melatonin, is only released in cool, dark conditions.

Find a relaxation routine that works best for you to prepare you for sleep—gentle music, a hot bath, relaxation techniques including meditation. ‘White sound’ can also help; for example a fan is hypnotic and sleep inducing.

For more information, studies, reports and news on the effects of shift work on health, see our resources page.

About the Author

Dr. Pushpa Chandra is a Vancouver-based Naturopathic Physician. She worked for over 27 years as a registered nurse and 22 years at BC's Children's Hospital, working in critical care with the province's sickest children. Her interests include research in circadian rhythm disruption, sports medicine and pediatrics. A competitive sports enthusiast, she has completed ultramarathons and marathons in all 7 continents. As a shift worker she has been using the ingredients of AWAKE and ASLEEP to boost her performance, endurance and overall health.