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Shift Work and Sleep

Date: 05/01/22

Our 24-hour society means that millions of people work hours other than the 9 – 5 “norm,” including healthcare workers, first responders, commercial drivers, warehouse staff, and others. As much as 20% of the workforce work hours outside of 9 – 5, commonly called “shift work” or “off shifts”. Many people work off-shifts because their job requires it, others because they find it easier to meet family obligations or get other things done. Whether working these shifts by choice or by necessity, one thing is true – shift workers get less sleep on a regular basis than their colleagues who work more traditional hours. This lack of sleep can lead to excessive sleepiness, harm their job performance and health, and make them feel isolated from family and friends on more typical work or school schedules.

Circadian rhythm

All living things have natural cycles that respond primarily to light – a “circadian rhythm”. These 24-hour cycles are part of the internal clock help to make sure that the things that keep the body working at its best happen when they’re supposed to – that the chemicals that help digest food are released near mealtimes, for example. Circadian rhythms also control our body’s sleep/wake system. But because circadian rhythms are very sensitive to cycles of light and dark (“circadian” has the same Latin root as “circle”,) it means that sleeping during daylight hours and being awake at night goes against our body’s basic biology.

Risks of Missed Sleep

Sleep is an important part of a healthy life – it’s actually as important to us as diet and exercise. For the best physical and mental health, adults require 7 – 9 hours of sleep. Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes, and focus better. People who don’t get enough sleep are less productive, are more likely to have accidents, and can suffer from irritability or mood problems. And over a long time, lack of sleep can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, infections, and mental health conditions such as depression.

How Can Shift Workers Get Enough Sleep?

If you work a constant night shift, you might have an easier time adjusting your sleep schedule that those workers whose shifts vary – say, two weeks on days, then two weeks on nights. But whether your schedule is constant or varies, you should try to maximize your daily sleep time to get as close to that 7 – 9 hours as possible. Dr. Kenneth Wright, a sleep expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recommends that shift workers sleep as much as they can soon after they get home from work. If they only get 5 or 6 hours of sleep before their body wakes up naturally, they should take a 2-hour nap before they go to work. That way, they’ve gotten the full amount of sleep their body requires.

If you work an unconventional shift, it’s important to make sleep a priority. Some ideas for ways to get more and better sleep include:

Minimize exposure to light. Morning sunlight on the way home from night shift work can activate the internal “daytime clock”. Blue light from TVs and electronic devices, can have the same effect.

Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can keep you awake.

Avoid alcohol. Alcohol might make you feel relaxed, but it interrupts the sleep cycle.

Don’t eat big meals close to bedtime. Lying down too soon after eating can lead to heartburn or acid reflux, which can interfere with your ability to sleep.

Keep a regular sleep schedule. Set a schedule to go to sleep and wake up each day. Yes, even on weekends. It’s easier to adjust your body clock once than over and over again.

Follow bedtime rituals. Take time to wind down before going to bed. Try taking a warm bath, drinking a cup of (caffeine-free) tea, meditating, or reading a little to encourage relaxation.

Exercise, but not too close to bedtime. Exercise promotes good sleep. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise every day but try to finish it at least a couple of hours before bedtime.

Ask for help from family and friends. Ask family and friends to help create a quiet, dark and peaceful setting during sleep time. This might include avoiding noisy activities like chores or using headphones to watch TV or listen to music.

Shift work doesn’t have to mean sleep deprived. With just a few changes, you can wake up refreshed and healthy, no matter what time of day you sleep.

Written by Cindy Maxim


Washington University Physicians, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Sleep Foundation A OneCare Media Company, NIH News in Health, Shift Work Sleep Disorder, The Ottawa Hospital

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