While good sleep is a challenge for all of us, our society relies on some workers doing their job outside of the normal 9-5 routine for whom it is even more difficult. While we’ve always been thankful for our healthcare workers and first responder heroes, the issues of the past year have brought them even more to the focus. Many nurses, doctors, police officers, EMTs, firefighters, truck drivers, and others on the front lines do so during non-traditional work hours. After all, car accidents occur at night and people need medical care after 5 pm. All of our extra online purchases mean more truck routes. Millions of doctors and nurses have been working long hours, including overnight, to fight the Coronavirus Pandemic. We’re so thankful for what they do, and part of this means realizing the sacrifices they make for the benefit of all of us.
While most of us are asleep, night shift workers are on the job. A nontraditional work schedule can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, or “biological clock.” Essentially, you are fighting what your body naturally wants to do, which is to go to sleep when it’s dark out. There’s a reason all cultures across the world sleep at night and work during the day, even cultures who have little to nothing else in common. Your body is tired at night when it’s dark and awake during the day when the sun makes it light. Your circadian rhythm regulates wakefulness and sleepiness at relatively set times throughout the 24-hour day.
Concerns of Night Shift Workers Regarding their Sleep Schedule
The biggest concern when it comes to night shift workers and their health is Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). SWSD is characterized by excessive sleepiness, a lack of refreshing sleep, and drowsiness. These symptoms can affect both work and leisure time. Those who suffer from SWDS experience many of the following symptoms:
- Excessive sleepiness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of energy
- Sleep that feels incomplete or not refreshing
- Depression or moodiness
How to Adjust Your Body
Adjusting your body isn’t impossible. One of the best things to do is to take naps when possible. A 30- to 60-minute nap right before your shift can make it a lot easier to make it through the night. Also, keep a regular sleep schedule, even on your days off. The back and forth of sleeping at night and then sleeping during the day is what makes it nearly impossible for your circadian rhythm to adjust.
How to Improve Your Sleep Quality
You don’t just need seven to eight hours of sleep. You need good-quality sleep, too. Research tells us that interrupted, fragmented sleep may be the same as barely any sleep at all! This is because sleep quantity isn’t the same thing as sleep quality. Your body goes through several sleep cycles when you’re getting your shut eye, all of which are important. When your sleep is disrupted throughout the night, you don’t have the opportunity to progress through the full sleep stages to get the amount of Deep Sleep and REM that is key to the feeling of restoration.
Practicing good sleep hygiene can help you to adapt to your schedule and improve the conditions for sleep. Making a few changes in your bedroom, like ensuring your mattress is both comfortable and supportive, and creating a slumber oasis can help you get the best quality of sleep during your time off. Outfit your bed with supportive pillows, a cozy down comforter, and clean, fresh sheets. Beyond this, keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Since you’ll be sleeping during the day, you’ll probably want to invest in some special curtains that make your bedroom pitch black even in the afternoon. This is well worth it!
What Your Night Shift Sleep Schedule Should Look Like
A few tips are all you need to make a night shift nurse sleep schedule work for you. Consider the following:
- You know you need seven to eight hours of sleep. Determine which hours of the day you are going to sleep. These should be the same hours every day, or as close to it as possible. These hours, like maybe noon to 8pm, will be your new “night.”
- Get home and go to sleep as soon as possible after your night shift is over. If you delay sleep after your shift, like meeting someone for breakfast or going to the gym, your body will begin to warm up and prepare for the day's activity. This will sabotage your efforts to get healthy sleep.
- Develop a bedtime routine that makes you feel calm, relaxed, and sleepy. Follow the same routine to prepare for bed on day or night shifts. This will encourage your body to get ready for sleep. Your routine may be taking a bath, having a light snack, brushing your teeth, listening to soothing music, and writing in a journal. Anything you enjoy can be part of your wind down routine, as long as it doesn’t involve screen time.
- You are sleeping when others are not, so it’s vitally important to protect your sleep hours. Hang a “do not disturb” sign on your door. Tell your friends and family members not to wake you unless it is absolutely necessary. Turn off your phone or put it on silent.
The long term effects of not sleeping well are not something to take lightly. Chronic sleep deprivation can be dangerous, as it increases your risk for falling asleep at the wheel, injuries related to falling, and even making errors on the job. A lack of sleep can impact your health, including heart health, brain health, and proper digestive function. It can also increase your risk of serious mental health conditions, like Depression.
This doesn’t mean you need to leave the job you love, the job our society depends upon. What you need to do is learn the best sleep schedule for night shift workers. This means sleeping in a way that is healthy and realistic. With some effort and preparation, you can do it!