Shift work disorder (SWD) is a real, diagnosed sleep issue for overnight shift workers. It can even lead to an increased risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and type-2 diabetes. Switching to the overnight shift can be a difficult adjustment for many workers, especially in the health industry. However, there are a few, simple steps you can take to make the transition easier on your mind and body.
Light up your workplace, dress comfortably, and spend time with coworkers.
A brightly lit workplace promotes alertness, especially during the waning hours of the early morning. Keep your workplace brightly lit during these times to help keep you alert and awake. Dressing comfortably for your shift is also important. Bring a scrub jacket for cold nights or short-sleeved scrubs for warm nights. Extremes in temperatures can trigger a sleepy spell, especially if you are not moving around. Seek out coworkers during these downtimes to have conversations. This can help to keep you all awake and alert, and it’s a great time for nurses and doctors to confer about care for their patients.
Train your body to sleep.
The first and most important task you need to accomplish as an overnight shift worker is to make sure you are well-rested at home. This can be challenging, especially when the outside world operates on a daytime-hours schedule. Keep to a rigid bedtime and wake-up schedule, even on days when you are not scheduled to work on the weekends. This will keep your body in a stable sleep rhythm, which can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep quickly once the workweek begins again.
Eliminate distractions in your sleeping area. Invest in darkening curtains or an eye mask to block out light, and a fan, white noise machine, or earplugs to block out outside sounds. Disconnect electronics or put them on do-not-disturb and place a "no soliciting" sign on your door to discourage salespeople from ringing your doorbell. Ensure your bedroom is a calm, quiet place to rest and recuperate and encourage your mind and body to sleep deeply.
Make changes at the end of your shift.
It may sound counterproductive, but avoiding that caffeinated beverage to get you through the last leg of your shift is essential. While the caffeine can give you a boost, that boost can become problematic when you get home and try to go to sleep. Additionally, avoid any alcoholic beverages, as the sugars and alcohol can interrupt healthy sleep patterns. Food, too, can disrupt sleep. This is because the digestive system gears up and can give you a boost of unwanted energy. Invest in a dark pair of sunglasses to block out the sun on your commute home. The influx of sunlight can have an awakening effect on your body, even if you feel tired.
Try to reduce the time of your commute.
If you can, limit the amount of time you spend in your car or on public transportation, especially on the way home from your night shift. Besides the bright morning sun, stimuli such as loud music, controversial topics on the radio, and traffic can awaken your brain and disrupt your attempts to sleep when you arrive home.
You need to keep your body fueled through your shift, and the temptation for any tired worker is to reach for foods with high sugar and saturated fat content. While these foods provide a temporary boost in energy, they often lead to a "sugar crash" later. Instead, make healthier food and snack choices during your shift, including healthy fats, protein, and healthy sugars. Granola and power bars are packed with protein and can help give you the boost you need to get through the remainder of your shift. Drink lots of water and keep your electrolytes up with fruit juice or power drinks.
Overnight shift workers should also make wise diet choices at home to help avoid sleep interruptions. Avoiding spicy foods or heavy meals before bedtime can reduce complications such as acid reflux. Staying hydrated and choosing foods high in protein and low in refined sugars can help you feel energized during your waking hours and minimize disruptions when you are trying to get to sleep. Making healthy food choices when you are home can also reduce the risk of some of the complications associated with SWD, especially gastrointestinal issues and weight gain.
Keep an eye on your blood pressure.
If you are drinking too much caffeine or not getting enough sleep during the day, high blood pressure can be a side effect. Make sure you're not overindulging in caffeinated products and you are getting plenty of rest at home. If you are not getting enough sleep, or if you are experiencing insomnia, consider seeking the help of a health professional to help you train your body to go to sleep quickly and stay asleep for long periods.
Enlist the help of family members and friends.
First, you need to alert your family members and friends to limit calls, text messages, and other forms of contact during the hours when you are sleeping. Well-intentioned loved ones don't mean any harm, but sometimes they do not understand that your sleep is crucial to your health and overall well-being. It's also important to stay in contact with family members and friends during the hours when you are awake and alert. This may mean scheduling times to get together in the evenings instead of the mornings or catching up on weekends instead of during the week.
Communicate your scheduling needs clearly and ask for their help in making plans that work for everyone involved. Being with family and friends is essential to your emotional health, especially because working overnight can sometimes feel isolating. Make your social life a priority, but make it work for your schedule.
Take a nap or exercise.
Not all professions or bosses allow this luxury, but, in some fields, breaks are a legal requirement for workers who are scheduled for a certain number of hours. If you can take a 15-minute power nap during your shift, you may feel more energized without the need for caffeine. Another key to staying awake during times on your shift when you may feel sleepy is to take a quick lap around the building or floor. Exercise provides a rush of endorphins and energy, which can get you over the sleepiness hump and get you through the remainder of your shift.
Try to get some healthy exercise at home after you sleep, too. While many people exercise early in the morning, you have the benefit of going to the gym during the less-busy hours. Treat 1 p.m. like it's 5 a.m. and start your day off right. Increased exercise in your daily routine can help energize you at work and promote a better sleep cycle when you get home. While transitioning to night shifts can be a challenge, there are perks, such as a shortened work-week and the possibility to be at home with your animals or children during the day. Sticking to a healthy routine can help you master the overnight shift and keep you at your very best at all hours of the day.