How to Get Much-Needed Restorative Sleep as a Shift Worker

Shift work twirls the dials on your body’s biological clock until it can’t tell when it should wake you up and when it should let you sleep. And although there’s no single magic plan that’s right for everyone, there is agreement among sleep researchers that the following strategies will help you get a good night’s sleep. Here’s how to get started.

How to Get Much-Needed Restorative Sleep as a Shift Worker

Get your partner on board. Shift work is tough on the entire family. Make sure your partner knows how it will affect him-increased parental responsibilities and household tasks, less time with you-before you sign on for night or rotating work.

Give your body a 3-day warning. If you’re headed toward a major change in work schedule, begin to alter your sleep time three days in advance.

Let’s say your usual shift is 5:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M. and you’re moving to an 11:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. schedule. If you usually sleep from 3:00 to 11:00 A.M., postpone your bedtime to 5:00 A.M. and sleep until 1:00 P.M. on the first day of the transition.

On day 2 postpone your bedtime to 7:00 A.M. and sleep until 3:00 P.M.

On day 3 postpone bedtime to 8:00 A.M. and sleep until 4:00 P.M.

On day 4 you’ll begin the new 11:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. shift. That day sleep from 9:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M.-and on every day thereafter.

Maintain a schedule. Keep the same sleep/wake schedule on your at-home days as on your workdays, says sleep specialist Kar-Ming Lo, M.D. It will help your body understand when you need to be alert and when you need to sleep.

Work clockwise. If you work rotating shifts, ask your manager to schedule succeeding shifts so that a new shift starts later than the last one, recommends the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. If you’ve just finished a 3:00 to 11:00 P.M. shift, for example, you’ll be more alert and sleep better if the next shift you work is 11:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M.

Get outdoors. Once you wake up, get outside. Take a walk and sit in the sun. The sun will cue your biological clock that it’s time to be alert.

Pass up opportunities. Shift work stresses the body big-time. It puts your health at risk and denies you time with your family. Even if you need extra money, think twice about accepting an opportunity to work overtime or extra hours or skip vacations. The price may be higher than the added income.

Get a pickup. Two-thirds of shift workers report driving drowsy after a shift-and drowsy driving is the direct cause of an estimated 1,550 deaths every year. Take the bus, hire a cab, have someone better rested than you are pick you up after your shift and take you home.

Make sleep a family effort. Discuss your sleep needs with kids, says Dr. Lo. Tell the kids that “Mom’s working hard and she works nights.” Then ask that they not go into your room unless it’s an emergency. And be sure to specify precisely what is-and what is not-an emergency.

Stick to Perrier. If you feel like a nightcap-morningcap?-make it water. Although alcohol may seem to relax you so you can get to sleep more quickly, what it actually does is disrupt your sleep later in the night. As a result, you get less sleep and sleep that’s less than refreshing.

Forget the quick fix. There isn’t any, although there are plenty of people around who will sell you one. One example: Sales of the herb valerian, which has historically been used to aid sleep, have reached more than a million dollars a year. Yet a review of 37 sleep studies reveals that it doesn’t do a thing.

Use room-darkening drapes. They are lined with a heavy light-blocking fabric that will give you your best shot at convincing your brain it’s dark and therefore time to sleep. Use them in the bedroom and wherever else you might wander during a rest period.

Forget the early-bird special. Don’t stop at the store for early-bird specials or watch late-late-late-night shows or early morning news shows once you get home, says Dr. Lo. Hit the hay.

Nap. A 20- to 30-minute nap just before reporting for the night shift can increase your alertness on the job.

Create a cocoon of quiet. Close the windows, turn off the phone, wear earplugs, and use white noise, says Dr. Lo. Running a bedroom air-conditioning unit during the summer or a fan in winter will mute outside distractions like trash haulers and slamming doors.

Live close to your job. A long commute steals sleep, says Dr. Lo. A short one facilitates it.

Get fixed. If you have the option of working a fixed shift-that is, the same shift each and every evening or night-go for it. You’ll feel and sleep better.

Get help. If you feel as though you’re walking under water all the time, ask your doctor if a prescription medication, melatonin, or bright-light therapy might help.

Influence work policies. If your employer knew that a 26-minute nap could double your productivity, don’t you think he’d make naps an approved corporate policy and figure out how to make nap time available?

He probably would-especially if you’ve been complaining that you’re tired. So do some research-you can start at www.sleepeducation.com-and develop some suggestions that will help you feel less fatigued and solve a problem or two for your employer. Who knows? You may end up getting a promotion along with a nap!

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