4 Sleep Tips For People Who Work At Night

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While many of us are focused on getting our seven-to-nine hours of recommended sleep overnight, millions of Americans are hard at work on the night shift. According to 2004 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 15 million Americans work full time on evening shift, night shift, rotating shifts, or other employer arranged irregular schedules

A non-traditional work schedule – especially an inconsistent schedule – can generate serious sleep and health issues. Those who work night or rotating shifts seem to have a higher risk of ulcers, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease, according to WebMD.

Shift workers are also at risk for Shift Work Sleep Disorder. The Cleveland Clinic says the disorder causes difficulties adjusting to a different sleep/wake schedule, which results in significant issues with falling asleep, staying asleep, and sleeping when desired.

There are a variety of sleep strategies and coping mechanisms available to help people get enough sleep when working night or rotating shifts. Since not all jobs are the same, some tips will apply to one’s situation more than others.

[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]


Planning The work schedule

“Employers can plan rotating shifts in ways that will help their workers,” say experts at the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.  “A schedule that rotates clockwise can be adjusted to more easily. This is a more natural change for your body.”

The center recommends a schedule that keeps the following pattern: Day shift, Evening shift, Night shift, Morning shift, Day shift.

Drink caffeine wisely

A cup of coffee may help people work more effectively, research suggests. One 2010 study reported that caffeine intake seemed to reduce the number of work errors of those doing shift work or working nights.

“Limit caffeine,” say experts from WebMD. “Drinking a cup of coffee at the beginning of a shift will help promote alertness. But don’t consume caffeine later in the shift or you may have trouble falling asleep when you get home.”

Related: How Caffeine Affects Sleep

Nap when possible

Grabbing a nap – whether it’s right before, during, or immediately following the shift – could be crucial to your health, say the experts at the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. If it’s do-able for you, your job, and your schedule, they recommend taking a 90-minute nap (also called a  prophylactic nap) before starting your shift.

How does this type of nap stack up against a cup of coffee? “Caffeine will keep you awake, but it’s no substitute for the restorative powers of sleep,” write the team at Mental Floss. “A 90-minute prophylactic nap—that is, a snooze specifically intended to prep you for an all-nighter—can carry you for about eight to 10 hours. (Meanwhile, 200mg of coffee will keep you going for six—and then you’ll crash.)”

Consider blackout curtains at home

“Sunlight is a potent stimulator of the circadian rhythm,” Dr. Wesley Elon Fleming, a clinical assistant professor at Loma Linda University and director of the Sleep Center Orange County in Southern California told WebMD. “Even if your eyes are closed, the sunlight coming into the room tells your brain that it’s daytime. Yet your body is exhausted and you’re trying to sleep. That discrepancy … is not a healthy thing for the body to be exposed to.”


The bottom line

Experts say it is important for shift workers and night workers to prioritize sleep. If you have a family, communicating your needs and working with them to help you get adequate sleep is also key.

“Your family and living companions have a vital role in helping you to sleep better,” says the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. “They need to understand both your unique schedule and your sleep need.”

If possible, they recommend posting a schedule of your shift work to help everyone keep track of your schedule. Work together to reduce the level of noise and light while you try to sleep during the day and schedule deliveries and repairs outside of your sleep hours.

It is also best to consult your doctor if you are concerned about any health or sleep health related issues while doing shift work, night work or otherwise.

[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]

Featured image: Dmitry Bunin/Shutterstock

Katie Golde

Katie Golde

Katie previously managed the day to day operations of the Mattress Clarity news site and reviews sleep products in addition to writing and editing sleep news. She hails from Austin, where she lives with her growing family. She is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and has a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and has a background in health and science content. Her work can be found in print and online publications like Discover Magazine, USA Today and The Huffington Post.