Working the night shift

Practical tips for coping with night shifts

Those of us who work nine-to-five office hours often look forward to the journey home and, later in the evening, being wrapped up in bed. It’s easy to forget though that as you’re sipping your cocoa and getting ready to hit the hay, millions of people are just getting ready to start their daily work routine.

Medics and psychologists often have plenty to say about working nights, highlighting not only the potential detriment to your social life, but also the potential physical effects on the body and brain.

Indeed, a study from the Sleep Research Centre in Surrey last year linked working nights with heightened risks of diabetes, cancer and heart problems.

Night shifts, however are to a necessity, and many people have to commit to them. Sectors like health, personal care and emergency response don’t become obsolete once the sun sets. What’s more, night workers are not miserable drones who hover about in a zombie-like state, but ordinary people who just want a good work-life-sleep balance.

So if you’re struggling with the night shift, here’s some advice on how to get some shut-eye while the world is wide awake:

1) Treat it like a normal working day

First of all, it’s important to recognise that your sleeping cycle will be aided by a measured approach to your working shift.

If you view it in the same way as a student pulling an all-nighter to get an assignment finished, your work will be unproductive, your sleep cycle will be affected and you’ll end up exhausted. Gradually, you need to train your mind and body so that it becomes a natural pattern.

One of the most bizarre things about starting a night shift is when your colleagues take a break at 3am and refer to it as ‘lunch’, but this is part of what you need to do to normalise the experience. To you, 8pm is now breakfast time, 8am is time to wind down and get ready for bed, and 8pm that night is “tomorrow”.

Night shift workers have spoken of several ways they space out their shift and try to naturalise the experience. Some will religiously listen to the shipping forecast, which is broadcast on Radio 4 every day just before 1am and after 5am, and is one of very few yardsticks available at that time of day to gauge the passing of time from one interval to the next.

Others rely on caffeine, but remember that you will need to sleep when you get home if you’re to be refreshed in time for the following night’s shift.

2) Give your room a night-time feeling

Sleeping with the sun out is an unnatural experience, so try to fool your brain into thinking it’s dark. You might want to use bin bags to block out the light coming into the room, especially in the summer, but make sure than in doing so, you’re not making your room too hot and stuffy, as this will affect your sleep too.

As is the case at any time, the key to sleeping during the day is a cool and relaxing room and a comfortable bed.

To recreate the quietness and darkness of night, try sleeping with earplugs and a sleep mask, as long as it’s comfortable. Too much fidgeting with it is obviously not going to help you sleep.

3) Make others aware of your working pattern

Since most people live their lives in the daytime and sleep at night, they can often be rather unsympathetic towards your working pattern. Make sure you give your family and friends gentle reminders of your need for 40 winks during the day, perhaps with a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door handle.

It might be advisable to keep your mobile phone out of the bedroom completely and rely on an alarm clock to wake you up. Even if you have it on silent, your mind might be bugging you to check your messages, thus affecting your sleep.

Working nights is a mental and physical demand at first, but with a sensible approach to work and sleep, you can enjoy a life every bit as healthy and active as someone on a more conventional day shift.

About the author

John Murray has a keen interest in both psychology and sleep, for reasons varying between intrigue and downright laziness. He writes articles for HappyBeds.co.uk, one of the fastest growing online retailers of beds and mattresses.