Working the night-shift can wreak havoc on your life. Sleep is so important to our health and well-being, and we just aren’t built to be up all night and sleep all day.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why there is a 42% increased risk of depression in night shift workers.
While I’m no sleep scientist, I do research sleep quite a bit and you can really see why, on a basic level, it’s so hard to adapt to a night-shift pattern. For anyone interested I’ve explained it at the end of this post.
Thankfully, the world isn’t over. There are a lot of ways to help make your night-shift life easier on your sleeping schedule. There’s no way to ever make it perfect, but it can be manageable.
Now, on-to the tips.
Health & Well-Being Tips
Now before you sigh and skip this section – I put it first for a reason. Yes, we hear ‘healthy’ advice everywhere these days, but the truth is it’s important. Keeping yourself running at optimum levels will make it so much easier to handle the challenges that shift work brings.
1. Use caffeine smartly. A cup of coffee at the start of work is a great idea to let you hit the ground running, but don’t touch the stuff in the last few hours. I know that’s when it gets tough, but you will screw your sleep for when you get home. Power through those final hours and enjoy a real rest once you’re back in bed.
2. Eat small. Hunger is a tricky one – eat too much and it’s impossible to sleep, too little and being at work becomes torture. Instead, try to have frequent big snacks / small meals to keep you on a good balance through the shift.
3. With sugar comes great responsibility. Small bursts of sugar can be great – especially if you say ‘okay, at 5am I’ll have that snack bar’ to keep yourself going. But try your best to stick to healthier sugars like fruit or granola bars. Yes a 3am doughnut is amazing, but being swarmed by the 3.30am crash and lethargy will make time go sooo slowly. The cost isn’t worth those delicious bites.
4. Follow a good sleep routine. I don’t just mean ‘get a lot of sleep’. I’m talking about the routine you do before bed – keep it the same no matter the time of day. If you still dress in PJ’s, brush your teeth, have your favourite bedtime drink and read a book, it’s 10X easier for your brain to understand that it’s time to sleep and let you drift off.
5. Be like water my friend. Stay hydrated. Hydration helps with everything, especially your concentration and energy levels. Avoid those horrible 4am dry eyes by getting a big water bottle and working through it during your shift.
6. Keep fit. Exercise gives you MORE energy and better sleep. Struggle to sleep after work? Go for a run or hit the weights instead. Embrace the quiet periods while everyone’s at work, and you’ll love how ready to sleep you’ll be afterwards.
7. Ask for help if you need it. Don’t be afraid to see a doctor or talk to management if you’re struggling. It is NOT worth your mental health to struggle through shift work with pride if it’s getting you down. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
On to the second most important category. These tips are really little tricks that you can do to make your life easier. Some will seem obvious, but hopefully there’s one or two that will give you a super simple change you can implement right now with massive benefits for you.
8. Take a pre-work nap. No-one says we have to sleep in 6-8 hour blocks. If you find it impossible to get all your sleep during the day, take a 1-2 hour sleep before work. You’ll wake up feeling more refreshed, and won’t need to fight for so much other sleep during odd hours.
Nerdy sleep talk: The ‘tiredness’ we feel is from a hormone build up called Adenosine. Basically, it builds and builds and builds while you’re awake, and when you sleep the plug comes out and it all flows away. That’s why a nap can do wonders at reducing it enough to feel good through a night shift.
9. Taper your sleep adjustment. The night-shift rotation’s coming up – do you slowly adjust to a vampire schedule, or suck it up and power through one whole night? By far, the better option is to taper it gradually. Our bodies can only adjust, AT BEST, about 1 hour a day to a new pattern. Putting up with the annoyance of a gradual taper avoids a WEEK of hell after rotation starts.
10. Wear sunglasses. One huge factor of sleep/wakefulness is through our eyes. Whenever we see bright sunlight, our system realises it’s daytime and won’t feel tired (by suppressing melatonin). An easy way to counter this is to wear sunglasses on your way home from work – the darker the better. They work wonders to avoiding the ‘IT’S DAYTIME!’ alarm bells ringing.
11. Avoid bright indoors lights, too. The same thing above can happen from electric lights. If you’re workspace is super-bright, it really won’t help you feel sleepy. If this means wearing sunglasses indoors for the last hour of the shift, screw it – your sleep is worth it.
However, some custom glasses can stop the types of light that make us feel awake without making you seem like a wannabe spy. Check out the glasses here (no sponsorship – just have seen them recommended).
12. Use night-mode in the day.
Finally, another way that light can make us feel awake is through the overly-blue lights on our phones. Nowadays, most of them have a night-light setting to dim those colors at night, but that can be changed. Set it for the last hour or so of your shift to avoid it waking you up.
13. Avoid heading straight to bed. I don’t know about you, but I could never sleep right after work. We need some time to de-stress in order to relax enough to sleep. Give yourself 1-2 hours to just chill in order to destress and unwind. You’ll feel and sleep much better because of it.
14. Get some damn good light-blocking tools. You’re asking for trouble if you don’t have a great set of black-out blinds, or at least a proper eye-mask. I know this isn’t a ‘smart-tip’, but so many people don’t even bother with these things and suffer so badly for it. If you’re one of them, get something ordered today and you’ll thank yourself for it.
15. Keep yourself entertained. This may sound simple, and what everyone tries to do when preparing for nights. But maybe there’s something you’re missing. While music or movies might sound the best, what really helps is something that keeps your brain involved.
Some great ways to keep yourself entertained, in order from best to worst:
- Create something – by far, this is the best option if you’re able to do it. If you’ve got genuine free time, you could use your free time at work to work on something else. Start developing a business, a book, or even a blog (like one about sleeping, perhaps). I find that there’s nothing more motivating than being able to work towards your goals in tough periods like this. It really helps you deal with the negative by knowing that you’re making something positive out of the situation.
- Audiotbooks – whole books read to you by a (hopefully) great narrator. Some of the best voices in movies have gotten involved. Think Harry Potter being read by Stephen Fry (amazing British accent), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Nick Offerman, or A Rage in Harlem by Samuel L Jackson . The best way to listen is Audible – sign up to the monthly sub and you get a new audiobook a month.
- Podcasts – if you hadn’t noticed, podcasts are the new media type taking the world by storm. There’s one on just about everything. Some great examples –
- The Tim Ferriss Podcast: Super successful people (entrepeneurs, business leaders, and people with incredible lives) being interviewed. Focuses on their habits and routines they use to be successful.
- 99% Invisible: Interesting tales about little quirks in life that we would never otherwise notice or know about. Like the rarest beer made only by monks, the 10 letters read by the president every day, and so on.
- My favourite murder: In-case want to listen to macabre stories while working alone at night! Delve into the stories behind how and why these kinds of things happen, makes for some pretty interesting – and far from boring – listening.
- Anything related to a sport you love: There’s almost definitely something by fellow fans or even a team you follow.
- Books – especially super interesting ones. For best results, read on a kindle at high brightness settings. Find genres that interest you (good fiction is great for this) and get stuck in. Just don’t slouch or lie down as you read, or it may be good night.
- Movies/TV – if you’re lucky enough to be able to watch TV/movies, these can be a good way to pass time but can also make you super lethargic and want to sleep.
Sometimes the best tips aren’t about what you can do, but how you can react to the situation. A night shift rotation is a hell of a challenge to take on, and having the right mindset can work wonders in keeping an optimistic outlook and having everything in perspective.
16. Try to have an end date in mind. If you’re on a rotation, this is easy enough – having a target date to look forward to. Something bright coming in the future can help us fight through dark times (pun intended).
On the other hand, it’s important to have an overall end date. No-one really wants to work nights, so it’s crucial to know how long you plan to do this for. Whether that’s ‘just this year to get experience/money’ or ‘only until I get a better opportunity’. Whatever the case, set a real end date where, if you’re still stuck working nights, that you’ll pull the trigger and demand a better position or leave.
17. Ask for support from family and friends. When you first started working nights, they probably joked with you a little. How it’s ‘annoying’ you can’t be free at night or that you always want to meet at breakfast. However, it’s important you stress that you need support from them too.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for back-up. When you’re facing a week of rough shifts, support from family and friends can go a long way. Try to help them understand that it’s tough on you. Let them know how important it is when they do rearrange stuff to accommodate your schedule (and let you have a bit of normal social interaction!).
18. Don’t be afraid to say no to invites. The extended isolation of working nights can make us desperate for a bit of normality. However, don’t say ‘yes’ to any kind of social event just because you can physically make it. Committing to something like a lunchtime meetup could mean really bad sleep, making for a worse shift – with low willpower and bad mood – resulting in lots of caffeine and being unable to sleep when you finally get home.
Know when you can or can’t afford to sacrifice sleep time for meeting people, and stick to it. While friends are important, your mental well-being is the real top priority.
19. Share your schedule. One last note on friends & family – try to let them know your schedule and when you can be contacted. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get to sleep when your buddy on day-shift is calling you wanting to meet up for a drink! Try to let people when a good time to call you is, warn them upfront that outside of these hours you might just be wanting to sleep, and don’t be afraid to keep your phone on silent/busy.
Finally, I wanted to include some tips that are about work directly. While not all of these are possible, they show the importance of having good management. People that do care and will look after you. If you’re not lucky enough to have that, try your best to still convince them of any changes that would be important to you. Perhaps demonstrate how and why it would help your productivity, as well as giving you a better quality of life.
20. Keep a bright workspace. Being within a bright area can go wonders to convincing your brain that maybe it’s not 4am time for bed. If you working somewhere that has to be dark (like a bar, club, or outdoors) then break areas should at least be really well lit up. Strong light is huge for keeping our brains in an awake state. You could even try getting one of those ‘SAD’ lights (example on Amazon) to really turn up the lumens and give you a refreshing dose of wakefulness.
21. Try to limit rotating shifts. A long and regular night-shift rotation is far better than frequently switching night/day rotations. If your team is getting constantly switched around, try talking to the rota planner and illustrating how it would make your life easier, as well as making you more focused, if the rotations were longer.
22. Minimise commutes where possible. Obviously this is a super hard one to control – but it’s important. The last thing you want after finishing at 7am is fighting through the commuters on busy transport to get home. The less commute, the less disruption to your day-to-day life and the easier it will be to sleep when you get home.
23. Discuss nap opportunities. If there’s multiple people on-shift, one potential is to try suggesting that you’re allowed a power nap. Just 30 minutes can have huge effects on productivity and wakefulness. As discussed in ‘Why We Sleep‘, Matthew Walker discusses the importance of naps.
Basically, the more we are awake the more that a hormone called ‘Adenosine’ builds up in our brain. This is what makes us feel sleepy, but it melts away when we sleep. So when we nap for half an hour, a whole bunch of this fades off and we’re left feeling so much less sleepy.
Try to get across the increased alertness, better mood, and job enjoyment a half-time nap would give you. Present it right, and maybe management might just agree.
Night shift work is a real challenge. Not only does it screw with out day-to-day lives, but it also alienates us from the rest of society. Loneliness and even depression are common side effects of taking on a nocturnal sleeping pattern.
With that in mind, it’s crucial that we face night rotation down by being as prepared as we can. I hope that this article has given you at least a few ideas on how you can make your night shift easier on you. Sleep well!