Shift work is defined as schedules outside the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day. Roughly 15 percent of full-time U.S. employees work on shifts outside this traditional schedule. For many, shift work is part of the job as service occupations like healthcare professionals and protective services are needed 365 days a year 24 hours a day.
The Sleep Health Institute defines two types of shift work schedules:
- Multiple shift patterns: Workers on multiple shift patterns do not work the same hours every day. They may work afternoons or evenings one day, then switch to overnight the next, sometimes even within the same week.
- Same shift pattern: Workers on a same shift pattern work fixed, predictable hours, but they are overnight or otherwise not in line with the typical Monday through Friday 9-5 schedule.
Sleep.org found about 25 to 30 percent of shift workers experience symptoms of excessive sleepiness or insomnia. But approximately 63 percent of shift works said their work schedule allows them to get enough sleep.
What is the secret to balance sleep when working inconsistently?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the circadian biological clock is controlled by a part of the brain called Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals.
From the optic nerve of the eye, light travels to the SCN, signaling the internal clock that it is time to be awake. The SCN signals to other parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or awake.
In the mornings, with exposure to light, the SCN sends signals to raise body temperature and produce hormones like cortisol. The SCN also responds to light by delaying the release of other hormones like melatonin, which is associated with sleep onset and is produced when the eyes signal to the SCN that it is dark.
Melatonin levels rise in the evening and stay elevated throughout the night, promoting sleep. The time we are most awake depends on the morning versus evening person profile. Medical News Today found melatonin does improve sleep duration while reducing the time it takes to fall asleep though recommend consulting a doctor prior to use.
Normally 2-4 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. are varying dips depending on the deficiency of sleep. During those early morning hours, the body is preparing for activity. When a shift is flipped, adjustments can be hard.
In a recent discussion with an Indiana nurse, Amanda, who frequently worked rotating shifts as an RN, she noted melatonin was a lifesaver with irregular shifts. She also recommends blackout curtains and a sleeping mask for uninterrupted sleep during the day. After a big block of shifts, she would also make certain to sleep without an alarm to rest up from the shift work.
Sleep.org interviewed shift workers in various industries to receive a variety of opinions. A fire lieutenant named Eric shared the next day after a shift was the hardest to function normally. “There are shift days when I get maybe three hours of sleep total, followed by strenuous and highly stressful calls on shift,” said Eric. “This leads to odd sleep times the following days when I’m off.”
Tips and Tricks
The National Sleep Foundation states that rotating shifts are easier to adjust to than irregular schedules. Moving from a day shift to an evening shift is preferable as the schedule moves clockwise keeping a pattern. For new shift workers, it is recommended to delay bedtime and wake up an hour or two later slowly to adjust.
A lot of shifts adjust every few months. Try talking to your employer ahead of a shift change so you can be prepared. Reader’s Digest Best Health also has a helpful list of 10 tips for shift works. A few easier adjustments are listed below from the article.
- Support from home. Make certain when shift work switches or schedules vary to have support from everyone in the house. If you need to sleep during odd hours, your spouse can take the kids to the park or library. Have a family sleep calendar so they understand the importance of sleep.
- Slowly adjust. Do not move straight into a new shift or even an existing shift. Take a few days to adjust by going to bed or waking up earlier depending on the shift.
- Maintenance. Some shift workers find it easier to keep the schedule everyday. For instance, if you work 4 days a week for 10 hours, keep the same sleep schedule on off days.
- Move. Get moving. Get outdoors for some fresh air. A life spent at work and sleeping will be a life slowly leading to obesity. On days off, take some walks with the family or go to the gym.
- Say no. Overtime can sometimes bring in a lot of extra pay but if it deters your sleeping habits, just say no. Money isn’t everything in life so keep balance with work and family by making sleep and time off a priority.
If you already are working a long shift and frequent shift changes, do not live far from work. The last thing you want to do is to drive sleepy or drowsy. Working close to your home keeps sleep a priority when you have time off.
You also want to avoid caffeine when shift working. Do not confuse your body by increasing your caffeine intake during shift schedules to prevent an energy crash.
Another helpful tip is staying alert in a bright space when you are working a shift. By staying exposed to light, your circadian clock can adjust to the environment even if it changes.
The Alaska Sleep Clinic specializes in diagnosing and treating a wide variety of sleep related disorders. Our registered polysomnographic technologists (RPSGT’s) work night schedules and realize the importance of successful sleep routines for job performance.
If you are experiencing shift work disorder or suspect an issue, call today for a free consultation.