Night shifts are a necessary part of providing the round-the-clock care that your patients need. If you’re one of the UK’s three million night shift workers, you’ll know that adapting to the night shift is critical to your wellbeing. Here are some handy tips to help you achieve the restful sleep you need.
How long does it take to adapt to the night shift?
There’s no magic rule for how long it will take to adapt. Some people acclimatise in days or weeks, others find it takes months or even years. Those who haven’t yet adapted can feel sleepy during their shift but feel wide awake when they should be sleeping. Fortunately, there are many steps that you can take to help your body adapt to night shifts. These range from natural ways to boost melatonin to using the latest relaxation apps.
Manage sleep patterns
Gradually shifting your sleeping pattern can help you transition into a period of night shift work. With advance notice, you can start moving your bedtime back and getting up earlier, which will ease the transition. However, if you routinely work a mix of night and day shifts, this is more challenging!
Be careful with coffee
You may be tempted to reach for an extra-large coffee to get you through a night shift, but you need to be careful not to overdo it. Caffeinated drinks may help you through the first part of your shift but switch to decaf or naturally caffeine free drinks as the night wears on. NICE guidelines recommend that you avoid caffeine within six hours of trying to go to sleep.
It’s also best to avoid alcohol. Although its sedative effects can help you nod off, it causes poorer quality sleep. If you want to wake up refreshed, stick to zero alcohol drinks.
Block out the light
Bright lights are great for helping you stay awake in the early part of a night shift. However, you should avoid the blue light emitted from devices such as phones, tablets and TV before going to bed. You can use settings on your devices to limit blue light or buy tinted glasses online. Installing blackout blinds or curtains will keep your bedroom as dark as possible. If needs be, you can also fit them on your landing to prevent daylight from sneaking in around your bedroom door.
Getting to sleep
To help maintain good quality sleep, you should have a consistent bedtime routine, whenever bedtime may be! A wind down routine signals to your body that you are ready to rest.
Some people find that having something to eat and drink followed by a shower or bath helps them to relax ready for sleep. Pistachios are a natural source of melatonin which helps to control the body’s sleep cycle. You can also try using pillow sprays, these contain lavender or chamomile essential oils to induce drowsiness. Using an app like Calm can help you get to sleep quickly and feel more refreshed when you wake up.
You have more chance of getting to sleep in the summer if your room isn’t too hot. Energy efficient quiet fans cost under £100 and are perfect for daytime slumbers. Alternatively, you may prefer the white noise provided by a normal fan as this can help drown out the daytime sounds of traffic and passers-by. You can also try cooling mats and experimenting with different duvet fillings. Wool duvets are increasingly popular as they regulate body heat.
Get used to napping
Napping can help you catch up on missed sleep and give you a renewed zest for your next shift.
There’s no ideal duration for a nap. Some people can feel refreshed after just ten minutes, others need 45 minutes to feel more human! It will soon be obvious what’s the optimum length for your naps.
If it’s possible, have a small coffee and then take a short nap (up to 20 minutes) whilst at work. When you wake up, you’ll feel the effects of the coffee and be raring to go. If that’s impossible, take a nap before your shift begins. You don’t need to go to bed to nap, with practice you can learn to fall asleep easily anywhere, especially if you use a regular wind down routine.. By taking advantage of small gaps in your schedule, such as when your children are at sports practice or by getting to work early, you can more easily find time for a quick sleep in the car. Remember that if you nap for longer than 30-40 minutes, you’ll be entering into deep sleep. Although this will help to reduce your sleep deficit, it will take you much longer to become fully awake.
Don’t forget to evaluate your tiredness before driving home at the end of a shift. Having a quick nap can prevent you from driving on autopilot.
Eat healthily to stay alert
Your metabolism can be affected by working nights. It’s important to avoid sugary foods. Although they give a temporary boost, this is swiftly followed by a slump which is hard to work through. If you’re working night shifts, you should try to follow a normal eating pattern (as much as is possible) and eat foods which are easy to digest, such as fruit, vegetables, rice and pasta. Fried, spicy and processed meals are harder to digest so should be avoided. With a little careful planning, you can fill your freezer with homemade alternatives and take these to work with you. This will help you avoid desperation purchases in the middle of the night.
Are night shifts unhealthy?
Night shifts have been linked to various conditions but there is legislation in place to protect your health. All new night workers are entitled to a free health assessment with follow up assessments at regular intervals. Although it’s possible to work a 12-hour night shift – and many people find these a useful way of juggling work and family commitments – the average length of a night shift can’t exceed eight hours in a 24-hour period, when measured over 17 weeks. You can find more information on the Health and Safety Executive website.
If you believe that night shifts are damaging your health, you should speak to your GP. If they confirm that you are suffering a health issue related to night work, you should be transferred to a daytime role, if possible. It may be worth keeping a sleep diary before seeking medical help.
Tempting as it is, try not to use night shifts as an excuse for being sedentary. Many towns now have gyms which are open 24/7 to cater for night workers. Visiting the gym regularly will help your body handle fatigue and boost your sense of wellbeing.
Watching the clock
Finally, if you’re having trouble getting to sleep, resist the urge to check the clock. Working out how little time you have left to sleep is a sure-fire way to stay awake! Instead, try reading a book or listening to a story.
We hope that these tips help you feel rested and rejuvenated and ready for your night shift.