Ever worked a graveyard shift? Approximately 16% of American employees do shift work. Anyone who’s ever had to work a night shift, or hours that don’t follow a typical daytime work schedule, can tell you just how difficult it can be. Why is that?
We’re programmed for regular hours
Why is it that shift workers have a harder time getting quality sleep compared to 9 to 5 workers? SleepScore Labs Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Roy Raymann, says it all has to do with the way our bodies are programmed.
“The human body is designed to run on a 24-hour schedule, with a built-in messenger system that tells our body what to do based on the time of day,” says Dr. Raymann. “So, when it’s light outside, we’re meant to be alert, whereas in the evening, it messages, ‘it’s time for sleep!’”
Essentially, for shift workers, they’re not getting the right signals at the right times for their schedules. With the confusing light and dark cues, it creates a misalignment between our body clocks (that drives the messenger system) and our scheduled sleep, resulting in poor sleep.
How to cope
If you or someone you know is a shift worker, unfortunately, there isn’t one magical fix to solve your sleep problems. If changing your schedule or changing jobs is just not an option, you can try a few of these ideas:
While at work:
- When tired, try to fit naps in if possible.
- Set up a support group with colleagues to exchange ways to fight the fatigue. Find ways to stay busy together, whether it be doing large tasks together or even just cleaning.
- Stay active during your shift (walking, standing, or whatever you can fit in) and work in groups if possible.
- Try contacting friends or loved ones during your break to talk about your day, boost your mood, and relieve some stress.
- When tired, drink plenty of water, sip a caffeinated beverage of your choice, and eat small amounts of energy-boosting snacks to help keep you up during your shift.
- Do your boring work tasks at the beginning of your shift and save the tasks you look most forward to for the end of your shift. This will be an incentive to keep going and stay productive. Shift workers tend to feel sleepiest between 4-5 am, towards the end of the shift. However, for that reason, it’s best not to leave the most demanding tasks to these late hours. It’s a tricky balance!
When you’re trying to sleep during the day:
- Wear sunglasses on the way home to avoid a lot of morning light exposure.
- Leave a window between your last sip of caffeine and bedtime. A 6-hour window is a good rule if you can.
- Try to stick to the same bedtime each day. We know it can be tricky when you factor in social engagements, but just try your best!
- Having a comfortable mattress, pillows, and blankets will help give you the sleep you need to take on the next day.
- Try some blackout shades in your bedroom or an eye mask to block the sunlight. Avoid screens before bed as well, because the blue light from computers or tablets can further disrupt your body’s natural rhythm.
- If you live in a noisy location, use a sound machine and/or earplugs to block out unwanted disruptions.
Find what works best for you and try to focus on the positive aspects of your work to get you through a long shift. If you get older and notice it is harder to deal with shift work, it might be time to really consider finding a more regular daytime job. As we get older, our bodies become less flexible with disruptive sleep schedules, and getting healthy consistent sleep becomes more important to our overall health and wellbeing.
Have more questions about shift work and sleep? Tweet us @sleepscore!