How to Set Up a Realistic Sleep Schedule as a Night Shift Worker

If you’re a night shift worker, you may work in the medical care sector, the hospitality or convenience store retail industries, air traffic control, or even in transportation. There are a vast number of white and blue-collar industries that operate 24/7, and they need staff to keep them running at all times. 

But our bodies aren’t built to operate around the clock.

The human body’s circadian rhythms assist us to wake with the sun and fall asleep once the sun has set. Unfortunately, working on a night shift schedule can disrupt this system and make it harder to fall asleep at the right times and wake up feeling alert the next day.

Working late hours consistently can take a toll on your body over time, especially if you don’t adjust your sleep schedule adequately to prepare yourself for your night shift work. Many night workers find themselves suffering from sleep deprivation, anxiety, exhaustion, and insomnia before long. 

Over 3 million people in the UK work evenings, nights, early mornings, or rotating shifts that include night shifts. And this number is growing fast. It’s indeed more difficult for these workers to maintain regular sleeping patterns. But they do still need the optimal 7 to 9 hours’ worth of sleep each day, as sleep experts recommend.

The Key to Adjusting Your Sleep Schedule

It’s potentially challenging to maintain a non-traditional sleep schedule, especially if this is your first experience with night shift work. However, it is possible. 

There are a few ways to adjust your sleep schedule properly to preserve your mental and physical wellbeing and stay productive when on the clock.

— Minimise your exposure to the morning light. It’s crucial to reduce your exposure to daylight when you leave your night shift. This light will stimulate your circadian rhythms and encourage your brain to keep you awake.

Wear dark, UV-filtered sunglasses when leaving work, and minimise your exposure to all light until you have slept adequately.

— Establish a regular sleep schedule. Having a regular sleep schedule is essential if you want to consolidate your sleeping periods. Instead of sleeping for a few hours at a time at scattered periods throughout the day, try to get your 7-8 hours of quality sleep in a single stretch after your shift, as you normally would at night.

It won’t take your body long to establish a new circadian rhythm that allows you to comfortably remain awake at night and sleep uninterrupted during the day.

— Assist your circadian rhythms to shift. All mammals, including humans, have circadian rhythms that govern when and how we sleep. These rhythms control our innate light-dark cycles, which are controlled by our so-called biological clocks. The length of a typical human circadian rhythm is roughly 24 hours.

Your unique circadian rhythms will depend on your specific genes, which can affect the functioning of your biological clock and an area of your brain known as the suprachiasmatic nuclei. These suprachiasmatic nuclei and your circadian rhythms will adjust to external timing cues over time, as long as you provide them consistently. 

This means that you may need to set alarms and keep strict schedules to encourage your biological clock to shift and adjust properly to your night shifts. Once your circadian rhythms have adjusted, your body will naturally anticipate sleep once you get off work in the morning.

Guidelines for Better Sleep

If you are struggling to adapt to your night shifts and enjoy quality sleep, here are a few guidelines to follow to ensure that you feel rested when you wake up in the evening.

— Avoid scrolling through your phone before you go to sleep. Studies have shown that the light from phones and tablets keeps us awake and that the social media posts, videos and other content we view can act as a stimulant, rather than relaxing and lulling us to sleep.

— Select a set time at which you want to go to bed each morning. Then sleep as much as you can from that time until you have to get up and prepare for your next shift.

— Once you have awoken, stay awake. Don’t allow yourself to go back to sleep again, as this may confuse your circadian rhythms and prevent them from fully adjusting. Occupy yourself or head off to work until your next scheduled bedtime and go to bed at that exact time.

— Minimise your exposure to ambient light, noise, and other distractions during the day when you need to sleep. Ensure that your bedroom is as quiet and undisrupted as possible. If noise and light do keep you awake, invest in a white noise generator, blackout curtains and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to reduce it.

— Create a calm and relaxing sleep environment. Make your sleep environment as stress-free as possible to induce restful sleep. Wear comfortable pyjamas, use soft and familiar bedding, and keep your room dark and cool when you are ready to rest. Establishing a bedtime routine, such as taking a warm shower and relaxing for 10 minutes before you go to sleep, may also help to relax you and relieve the day’s stresses.

— If you need to nap, take short naps rather than longer ones. 10 minutes seems to be the most effective nap duration to reduce sleepiness, increase productivity, and enhance focus. You can take naps during your work breaks if your job allows it, or even in your car once you get off work and before you drive home.

— Avoid caffeine around 3 to 4 hours before you go to bed. Caffeine not only keeps you awake, it can also delay the timing of your body clock, and reduce the quality of your sleep. If you crave a hot drink before bed, warm milk with honey or caffeine-free tea is a better alternative.

Consistency is Key

Consistency is absolutely crucial when it comes to setting a realistic sleep schedule as a night shift worker. Set your alarm for the same time every day and be consistent with your bedtimes to whatever extent possible. 

It’s recommended that you even follow this sleep schedule on your days off to prevent throwing your circadian rhythms out of kilter. Remember, there is no single ideal sleep schedule that will work for all-night shift workers. Try a variety of different strategies until you find the one that works best for you.

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