8 tips to optimise sleep for shift work

Jul 11 2024

From hospitality and travel to medicine and manufacturing, shift work is a reality for many of us, at least sometime during our careers. Working irregular hours, especially at night, can disrupt your body's natural circadian rhythm and wreak havoc on healthy sleep patterns. Here are some science-backed strategies to help shift workers improve sleep (and life) quality.

8 tips to optimise sleep for shift work
Mind your body

Shift work can increase the risk of various health issues related to lifestyle, including sleep disorders, cardiovascular problems, metabolic disorders, and even certain cancers. Regular health check-ups and monitoring can help detect and manage health conditions early, so you can get on top of them before they become serious.

Remember your ‘why’

Make quality, restorative sleep a priority, and other things will become easier too: the quality of your work, health, mood and relationships improves when you’re well rested. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per day, even if it means adjusting your schedule during non-working days.

Set and defend your boundaries

If you haven’t already, try setting the ‘do not disturb’ on your phone to come on at a regular time, hanging a sign on your bedroom door, and letting loved ones know that even though you’re at home, you’re not available to them right now. Your home is your sanctuary, so if you have a workspace in your room, you can reduce mental clutter by tidying up and stowing paperwork before you head to bed.

Make your space sleep-suitable

Scientific research suggests optimising your sleeping environment can mitigate the effects of shift work. Invest in blackout curtains to block out daylight, maintain a cool and quiet room, and use white noise machines if needed to drown out daytime interruptions – like that neighbour using the fine day to mow their lawn.

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Tweak your schedule

When transitioning to a night shift or changing your shift rotation, make gradual adjustments to your sleep schedule. This can help your body adapt more smoothly to the new hours. Try shifting your bedtime and wake-up time by 15-30 minutes every few days until you reach your desired schedule. 

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Harness the light

Exposure to natural light is essential for circadian rhythm regulating. During your shift, expose yourself to bright light sources if possible, such as sunlight or special light therapy lamps designed for shift workers. Conversely, eliminate your exposure to bright light when you need to sleep during the day. Consider using a small night light in the bathroom you use, to avoid switching on the light.

Eat well and exercise

Maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise routine can positively impact your sleep quality. Avoid heavy meals before bedtime and limit caffeine in the 6-8 hours leading up to sleep time. Fresh air and exercise in the sunshine can wake you up before your shift, while yoga, stretching and tai chi are effective ways to relax the body and calm the mind. Try these in a dimly lit space for extra zen.

Embrace the power of naps

Short naps (20-30 minutes) can be beneficial for shift workers, by reducing fatigue and enhancing alertness during your shift. Try to avoid long naps that can interfere with your main sleep period, whether night or day. NASA sleep scientists famously discovered pilots who napped in the cockpit for 26 minutes improved alertness by 54% and job performance by 34%, compared to pilots who didn’t nap. Longer than half an hour, and you risk falling into a deeper sleep, which can make you feel groggier when you have to wake up suddenly. A compact, yet supportive pillow like the Go Pillow can help you make the most of spontaneous napping opportunities.

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Shift work and healthy, restorative sleep don’t always make compatible bedfellows. To minimise negative impacts on your wellbeing, experiment with the ideas above, optimise your sleep environment, and adjust your schedule if it helps. If you still struggle with sleep due to shift work, consider talking to a sleep specialist for advice that fits your needs and challenges.

Learn more

Nena, E. et al. (2015). Effect of Shift Work on Sleep, Health, and Quality of Life of Health-care Workers. Democritus University of Thrace

Shift work can harm sleep and health: What helps?. February 28, 2023.