Working the night shift may come naturally to vampires, but for us humans, it can cause problems. Our circadian rhythms urge us to sleep when it’s dark and rise during the daytime. Some providers are night owls who love working overnight shifts – maybe you’re one of them – but it can take a toll, physically, socially, and emotionally.
Erratic sleep schedules disrupt the natural healing that occurs during sleep. Studies show that night shift workers may be more susceptible to cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, even certain types of cancer, and are at greater risk of weight gain. On the job, both productivity and occupational safety can take a hit.
It can also throw your sense of work-life balance off kilter, as it may be harder to spend time with friends and family. And you may just be tired overall, as night shift workers typically get a minimum of an hour less sleep overall than day workers.
“Night shift is tough when you have a family at home,” says Nicole Streich, RN. “I used to flop back and forth between nights and days, so that I could make extra money. The problem was that it made me physically ill. I would be nauseous and I always woke up with a headache. I was so irritable with my kids when I picked them up from school. And my days off weren’t really days off because I had to sleep to prepare for the shift ahead.”
Staffing night shifts is part of providing 24/7 care, but this kind of difficulty is common among night nurses and physicians. Some feel sleepy during their night shifts, then struggle with insomnia when they try to go to bed in the morning. Some adapt but feel lethargic and unfocused on the job. New demands – such as caring for an infant or struggling with a medical condition – can make it harder to work night shifts even for someone who previously enjoyed it.
That said, night shifts can pay higher wages. If you’re thinking of working night shifts, or are struggling to adapt, here are 5 practices that can help.
To stay alert at work, use light boxes and lamps to signal that your “day” has started. Conversely, avoid bright light after work, including phone scrolling. Wearing dark sunglasses on the drive home can help; in bed, blackout curtains and a sleep mask can keep you asleep through the sunlight hours. Darkness promotes the release of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body it’s time to go to sleep.
It’s tempting to turn to sugary snacks and highly caffeinated beverages to stay alert at night. But while caffeine early in your shift can keep you active, consuming energy drinks later in your shift can make it tough to fall asleep when you’re home. To stay energized without crashing, prepare healthy snacks for work and stay hydrated. Also helpful: a regular exercise routine and Vitamin D supplements.
Most people find it easier to move their bedtime by 2-3 hours each day, rather than switch abruptly to being nocturnal. To return to day shifts, try going to bed in the morning as usual but setting an alarm for early afternoon. After that, force yourself to stay awake until a more typical bedtime.
Following the same bedtime routine every day can help you wind down. Consistent, repetitive acts like flossing your teeth, listening to music, taking a shower, or practicing a brief sleep yoga routine become signals to your body to go to sleep.
Friends and Family
Your friends and family are going to bed as you head off to work; when they want to call or visit, you’re fast asleep. Make a special effort to find ways to stay in touch, even if it means scheduling time together well in advance, or you may begin to feel isolated as your night shifts continue.
Finally, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers a free online training course to help healthcare professionals master night shift challenges. And ultimately, you may decide that night shifts just aren’t for you no matter how well you prepare. But if you do find a night shift on your schedule – rest up and take your sleep needs seriously.