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Sleep Tips for Shift Workers

Get the sleep you need when you work nontraditional hours.

Are you one of the 15 million Americans who work a nontraditional schedule? If so, you're a shift worker -- someone who works hours other than the usual 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And you should know that a growing body of research suggests shift work puts your health at risk. And that sleep problems unique to shift workers -- called shift-work sleep disorder -- affect about 10% of all shift workers.

So whether you're an emergency room nurse, a safety officer, or a meteorologist monitoring overnight weather, there are steps you can -- and should -- take to help safeguard your health.

Disorder Defined
Shift work forces your body to go against its natural circadian rhythms. It forces you to be awake at a time when your body naturally wants to sleep. And disrupting the body's natural internal clock for sleep and wakefulness can have some pretty major effects. Not only can shift work lead to insomnia and excessive sleepiness, but also that sleepiness can cause accidents and other problems. In fact, about 50% of workplace accidents can be attributed to excessive sleepiness. Lack of sleep from shift work can have an impact at home, too. Lots of people with shift-work related sleep problems report missing family and social obligations because they're dealing with the fatigue, headaches, and mood changes that come with sleep problems. Shift-work sleep disorders have even been linked to gastrointestinal conditions and heart problems.

For most people, quitting their jobs is not really a possible solution for the sleep problems that come from shift work. But they also shouldn't just live with poor sleep. In the interest of good health, here are five tips that can help shift workers get the ZZZs they need:

Tip #1: Maintain a Consistent Schedule
Even though your schedule might be different from most people's, that doesn't mean it should be erratic. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day -- even on your days off -- to help your body adjust to the shift-work schedule. If possible, minimize multiple night shifts in a row. And try to avoid frequent shift changes and extended hours if you can. If your work schedule must change, ask for a shift forward in time -- not backward -- to minimize the impact on your sleep.

Tip #2: Make Sleep a Priority
Sleep is as critical for your health as eating well and exercising, so make it a priority. Whether you sleep 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. or 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., aim for 7 to 8 consecutive hours of sleep each day to nurture your health. If you feel a bit of brain fog, take a 30-minute nap before your shift. This can help increase alertness on the job. So can a nap during your shift, if permitted. Finally, get extra rest on your days off to help make up for any sleep lost.

Tip #3: Act Like It's Daytime
As a shift worker, you live with a flip-flopped sleep/wake cycle. You're at work while the rest of the world sleeps, and you sleep when others are awake. But it's best to approach your shift as if that's not the case, in order to reinforce the altered sleep cycle. So when you're at work, do things you'd normally do as part of the waking world. Interact with other people to increase your alertness level, do something active during your break, and keep the lights bright to mimic daytime. And, of course, a cup of coffee early in your schedule can help you stay awake.

Tip #4: Ease into Sleep
Sometimes the hardest part of shift work is going to bed after work ends. And you may struggle to get that sleepy feeling once you're home, so it's best to ease your transition from work to bed. Here are some tips that can help with that: Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine several hours before bedtime. If it's bright out when you head home, wear dark sunglasses on the drive in order to reduce the sunlight that will activate your internal "wake up" clock. And if you eat before you go to bed, choose something light. A heavy meal may interfere with your sleep. Ditto for spicy foods and alcohol.

Tip #5: Mimic the Night
When you do hit the sheets, your bedroom needs to make you feel like it's nighttime. It has to be dark, quiet, and undisturbed to be truly conducive to sleep. So ask members of the household to respect your sleep time: no loud appliances (vacuum, dishwasher, washing machine, etc.), no loud music, and no loud television. In the bedroom, use thick, light-blocking drapes to keep things dark. And earplugs and an eye mask are smart investments. Finally, turn off your cell phone and answering machine, and put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.

A Shift in Priorities
Shift work can be hard on sleep, but don't let it take control of your health, too. With a little extra effort, you can get the rest you need. If sleep problems persist, don't just live with it. See your doctor for advice on medications and other options for helping you sleep.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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