Strategies for Shift Workers to Improve Sleep

Nearly 15 million Americans work full-time on evening shifts, night shifts, rotating shifts or other employer-arranged schedules. These irregular hours disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, causing sleep deprivation that leaves shift workers the most prone to accidents in the workplace and on the road.

In the following video, Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, Chief Medical Officer at FusionHealth, discusses how the symptoms of sleep deprivation resemble alcohol intoxication:

If you experience the following, you may be sleep deprived and at greater risk for accidents:

  • Excessive sleepiness when you need to be awake, alert, and productive
  • Insomnia, or not being able to sleep when you need to sleep
  • Sleep that feels unrefreshing or insufficient
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability or depression
  • Difficulty with personal relationships

The good news is that there are things shift workers can do to improve sleep quality.

Identify Your Circadian Rhythm

Think of your circadian rhythm as your internal clock, telling you when to wake up and when to feel sleepy. Not only does it control sleeping and waking, but also important functions like lung capacity, hormone production and body temperature. The strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 AM and between 1:00-3:00 PM with some variation depending on whether you’re a morning or evening person.

Help Your Body to Adapt to the New Shift

When moving to a new shift, it can take about a week for the body to adjust to new times for sleeping, eating, and activity. This can lead to sleep deprivation, leaving you at a higher risk for accidents. In addition, during the week following a shift change, those with heart disease may be at a higher risk for a heart attack. Researchers believe that these issues are due to a disruption to circadian rhythms and sleep.

These tips can help your body deal with a new shift:

  1. Make your time change more gradual: If possible, start waking up earlier or later, every day, in the weeks before your shift changes in order to more slowly adjust to your new schedule. Moving your wake time by 10-15 minutes a day will make the transition much easier.
  2. Keep your schedule: Be as consistent as you can with eating, social, bed and exercise times relative to your new wake time. Avoid heavy workouts within four hours of bedtime as they can raise your core body temperature, making it harder to go to sleep.
  3. Have a sleep ritual: It is easier to fall asleep when you slow your body down. Routines such as dimming your lights, taking a warm bath, putting your electronic devices away and reading a book can help you relax.
  4. Accentuate your new rhythm for sleep and wake: As you adjust to a new sleep/wake rhythm, add elements that improve alertness (light, caffeine, food and exercise) at your new wake up time, and remove these elements from your sleep time. Similarly, to improve sleep quality you might add sedentary activities and sedating substances (chamomile tea, valerian root or melatonin) to the hour before your new sleep onset.

Manage Light and Dark at Bedtime

Darkness sends a signal to the body that it is time to go to sleep. Unfortunately for shift workers, they tend to be exposed to light on the trip home and in their bedroom. Light exposure at the wrong times alters the internal “sleep clock” which interferes with the quantity and quality of sleep.

You should create a bedroom that guards against unwanted light, and protects the quality of sleep until you’re ready to wake. Make sure you have window coverings heavy enough to fully block light and consider wearing an eye mask to protect against intrusive light. Avoid screen time from all light (especially blue-light) emitting devices like cell phones and computers, and dim the lights an hour before bedtime.

Optimize Sleep

Sleep affects our cognitive function. When we are sleep deprived, it impacts our ability to problem solve, learn, think and be creative. The good news is that optimizing sleep is not difficult, it just takes some trial and error.

  • Go to sleep at the same time every night (weekends included).
  • Set your alarm for the morning and see if you begin waking up naturally before the alarm.
  • If after a week you don’t wake naturally, set the alarm 15 minutes later or go to bed 15 minutes earlier.

Once you start waking naturally, you will have found your ideal sleep duration. Do your best to remain on this schedule.

Should you have any questions or like any assistance on your path to better sleep, please contact the FusionHealth Participant Resource Center at 1-877-615-7257.

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Kellogg School of Management

Strategies for Shift Workers to Improve Sleep