Night shift and overnight jobs are the most difficult and taxing types of work out there. We can speak from experience, if you do not have proper strategies put in place for this line of work then not only will you feel constantly exhausted but you will also be at risk of burning out. It seems like staying healthy and getting enough sleep can be impossible for shift work.
What Does A Shift Work Schedule Look Like?
Shift work differs from a regular 9-5 job as instead of working from Monday to Friday, you usually work 2-4 days in a row then have anywhere from 2-5 days off.
Shift workers typically work a 12 hour day, which is a standard shift in manufacturing industries and hospitals. These jobs have rotating teams so that when you are done another team is just starting work. This is super important as it allows 24/7 operation.
Just think, if you had a life threatening accident at 3 am you can be reassured that someone will help you! The chart below showed my old work schedule at a manufacturing plant.
As you can see, shift work is designed to extend the working periods of time each day so that a shift worker has less days to work in total. The advantage of this type of schedule is that you won’t have to miss work for appointments and it can be easier to spend time with friends or family.
What Is Somnolence?
Now that we have a basic understanding of what a typical shift worker schedule looks like, let’s talk about what night shifts feel like. I think it’s safe to say that everyone reading this has at one time or another tried to stay up all night. Just remember the overwhelming exhaustion that comes around 3-4 am and imagine trying to focus during that time.
"It’s one of those feelings that you can never adapt to".
From a biological perspective, your body has used up lots of energy throughout the day. This energy use, in the form of ATP, builds up what are called adenosine residues. The buildup of adenosine residues is what cues your body to feel tired and crave sleep. In fact, coffee keeps you awake because it prevents your body from realizing that you have built up all this adenosine!
Staying up when you want to sleep can cause internal confusion in your body and lead to somnolence. What is somnolence you ask? Somnolence is a state of sleepiness or drowsiness in which you feel like you could readily fall asleep.
"I can personally tell you that somnolence is a very real thing".
I remember falling asleep, while on break, in a chair with my phone in my hand. I was lucky because I was in a safe environment but somnolence can be extremely dangerous depending on where you are when you fall asleep. For example, if you fall asleep behind the wheel when you are driving home!If you choose to work overnight shifts please be aware of what somnolence is and avoid taking risks when you feel unfit to complete certain dangerous tasks.
What Are The Health Effects Of Shift Work And Extended Hours of Work?
Overnight shifts can directly disrupt your normal sleep-wake cycle which can result in somnolence. Now this is in the short term, what are the impacts of this line of work in the long term?
One major issue associated with overnight shifts is sleep debt. Sleep debt is when you do not get enough sleep over the course of a period of time. Think of it as a snowball effect. Sure, in the short term you can compensate and cope with sleep deprivation, but, in the long term it can become a serious problem!
Let's look at an example of sleep debt. Let’s say you are the type of person that needs 8 hours of sleep each night.
Over the course of a week you get 52 hours instead of 56 hours. At this point you are 4 hours in debt. No big deal right? Right? Well, over the course of a year if you consistently work this schedule with no vacation this can equate to 208 hours of sleep debt. Now you see the problem…
This problem cannot be dealt with by simply “sleeping in” on the days you have off. While I encourage you to do this, your body does not operate this way. You can only sleep for a finite amount of time. The only way this would be possible is to turn off your own internal clock which is literally impossible.
"This line of work has a sleep disorder named after it called shift work sleep disorder (SWD)".
The prevalence of SWD can range from 10-23% and is dependent on the number of night shifts that you work. The more overnight shifts you work the more likely you are to develop SWD.
SWD has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and occupational accidents.
Are Naps Helpful For Sleep Debt?
Napping can be an effective solution to help chip away at sleep debt. One precaution with napping is that if you take a nap for longer than 30 minutes, you will enter a stage of sleep that if awoken from, will make you feel extra tired and disoriented.
"A nap less than 30 minutes is better than a cup of coffee!"
Why Can’t I Sleep After Working A Night Shift?
There are two possible reasons why you can’t sleep after working an overnight shift.
One reason is that your body’s internal clock is preventing you from sleeping. When you see light, there are receptors in your eyes that signal to the brain to stop producing melatonin (a hormone that aids in sleep onset and sleep duration).
You will need some form of blackout solution in your room to be able to properly fall asleep during the daylight.
The second reason could be from sleep apnea. Shift work may not directly cause sleep apnea but it creates situations where it could exacerbate this health issue.
7 Tips On How To Work An Overnight Shift
Now that I have sufficiently scared every night and overnight shift worker reading this, I will talk about some solutions to help mitigate these adverse health effects. All of these tips are geared towards reducing sleep debt.
Maintain A Good Sleep Environment
When I worked night shifts, my co-workers gave me some great advice and I will pass this along to you now.
They told me to tape up garbage bags in my room to help me sleep. While this worked in the short term, if you are in this line of work for a long period of time you will require some form of blackout solution.
Avoid Big Meals During Your Overnight Shift
Consuming big meals overnight can affect your digestive system and leave you with an upset stomach.
Avoid Excessive Caffeine And Stimulants
I get it, you may need caffeine to keep you awake, but if you can, I implore you to try and go without them.
When you intake too much caffeine there comes a point of diminishing returns meaning that you will not achieve the same effect.
If You Cannot Sleep Do Not Force Yourself ToTrying to force yourself to sleep can cause you to feel worried, anxious and restless which is very counterproductive to sleep.
If you cannot sleep the best thing you can do is get out of bed and do a relaxing activity that does not involve a lot of blue light till you start to naturally feel sleepy.
Take Less Than 30-Minute Naps Before An Overnight Shift
Having a 30-minute nap can be just as effective as caffeine as you benefit from the earlier stages of sleep which are good for both mental and physical alertness.
Moderate Exercise Before An Overnight Shift
Exercise such as walking or running make you more mentally alert allowing you to potentially reduce your caffeine intake to stay awake.
Wear Sunglasses HomeWearing sunglasses on the way home reduces your exposure to light. This prevents your brain from switching from a sleepy state to an awake state.
Now We Want To Hear From You!
We’d love to hear what you think about these tips for improving your sleep while working a shift job
Which tips are you going to try on your next night shift?
Do you see yourself purchasing a 100% blackout curtain to help you sleep during the day?