How to Prepare for and Stay Awake During a Night Shift

egewtgtFor some people working a night shift is an essential part of their job. From doctors, to transport operators, care workers and prison security guards, there are an increasing number of careers where night shifts are an expected part of the job spec. With modern HRsociety demanding a 24-hour existence, there are more and more positions for workers, which don’t adhere to a normal 9-5 working day.

Here, former shift-worker Mike James – now partnering with Planday on a series of online posts – has highlighted a number of the tried and tested methods to maintain a night shift role.

While the health risks of night shifts have been widely reported, for many there are actually some benefits from working through the night. Fitting in work with family and school runs, looking after loved ones, or enjoying a pain-free commute to work are all good reasons some decide to take on a night-working existence. Many night jobs offer better pay, and you can be at home when the kids finish school. And if you’re not keen on working in a busy environment for a demanding boss, night shifts could offer you a quieter working life, where skeleton staff levels are the norm.

Having touched on some of the benefits, we shouldn’t ignore the research. Night shifts have been linked with higher rates of diabetes, heart attacks and cancer. At the very least it can play havoc with sleep and cause fatigue. This alone could be disastrous for your decision-making and create serious consequences in your work. Everyone reacts differently to shift work, and it will depend on your level of health and fitness, your age, and your lifestyle, as to how easily you adapt. Here are some great hints and tips that might help you to prepare for shifts and make shift work generally more tolerable.

  1. Sleep to a schedule

We are programmed to sleep at night, so it’s no wonder that persistent night shifts often cause sleep deprivation and fatigue. Sleep is regulated by homeostasis and our circadian biological clock. When we have been awake for a long time, homeostasis tells us that it is time to sleep. It also maintains the period of time we are asleep to ensure we get enough sleep.

Our circadian clock regulates the timing of periods of sleep and wakefulness throughout the 24-hour clock. It is controlled by a part of our brain in the hypothalamus, and is strongly influenced by natural cycles of light and dark. During the night (when it is dark) our pineal gland releases the sleep hormone melatonin, which lowers alertness and increases the desire for sleep. Working at night means you are working against these rhythms.

It’s not uncommon for night workers to have more fragmented and brief periods of sleep during daylight hours, because the body is dictating that it’s time to be awake. Night work inevitably leads to poorer quality sleep and a sleep debt. The only way to keep the balance is to catch up on lost sleep. It’s therefore crucial to manage daytime sleep to keep sleep debt to a minimum. Here are some tips to help create a good daytime sleeping pattern:

  • Make sure your bedroom is a suitable place to sleep, preferably with black-out blinds.
  • Try not to watch television or play computer games before you go to sleep.
  • Do some relaxation exercises, read or listen to soothing music before you go to bed, or perhaps take a bath.
  • Build positive associations between being in bed and sleeping.
  • Have a light meal before going to sleep
  • Avoid alcohol or caffeine prior to your scheduled sleep.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise before going to sleep.
  • Take a 2 hour afternoon sleep the day before your first night shift to make sure you are well rested before your stint of night shifts.
  1. Staying awake during your night shift

Your circadian rhythms won’t only be affecting your ability to sleep during the day, they’ll be making you feel sleepier during your night shift. Your levels of alertness and vigilance will be lower than usual. The body is programmed to be its least active between 3am and 6am, so it is during this time that you will feel most inclined to sleep. Here are some tips to help keep you at your best during the lonely night-time longhaul:

  • Nap on duty

Taking a power nap during this time can help you stay refreshed. Most night shifts will include a break, and even taking a nap for as short as 20 minutes will have positive benefits. If possible sleep for up to 45 minutes (but no longer, because you have different stages of sleep). Set an alarm to make sure you don’t fall into a deep sleep, and give yourself enough time to recover from your nap before going back to your duties. Naps are most effective if taken early, before you feel really tired.

  • Exposure to bright lights

Maximise your exposure to light during the night, even if it’s just with overhead lights and a desk lamp. It will improve your alertness.

  • Eat properly

It’s easy when you are working night shifts to miss proper meals, because your circadian rhythms affect appetite. Try to keep your eating habits similar to those you would normally follow during the day, and eat a full meal before you start your shift. Avoid sugary foods during the night as they provide an energy boost, but are followed by an energy dip.

Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. This will help your mental alertness and physical performance. Avoid drinking too much prior to the end of your shift when you will be going home to sleep as it may overload the bladder. And don’t reply on caffeine to get through the night as it may make it harder for you to fall asleep once you get home.

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