5 things you can do to improve your sleep if you’re a shift worker

The land of nod, hitting the hay, siesta, catnap, shut-eye – no matter what you call it, there is no doubt that sleep is vital for basic day to day functioning. But what if you’re a shift worker who doesn’t have a consistent sleep routine? If you are one of the 3 million + people in the UK who work night shifts, here are some simple changes you can make to ensure you’re getting restful sleep.

1. Schedule your sleep.

Just because everyone else is awake doesn’t mean you need to be. When working shifts, it’s important to schedule in your sleep even if it seems like the most random time of the day to be sleeping.

Adults need between 7 – 9 hours of sleep per day to be able to function properly, any less than that and you risk incurring sleep debt. To ensure you’re not in debt, make sure you plan your 7 – 9 hours of sleep.

To minimise the risk of interruptions to your much-needed sleep, try these:

• Don’t delay going to bed. This will only make you feel more awake.
• Eat and drink before sleeping so you don’t wake up due to thirst or hunger.
• Avoid alcohol and smoking. These can cause disruptions to sleep.
• Let friends and family know not to disturb you.

2. Change the lights.

When it’s light our bodies release chemicals to make us alert and feel awake and when it’s dark our bodies release chemicals to make us feel drowsy. People who work shifts can be seriously out of sync though, needing to be alert in the dead of night and desperate for some Zzzz in the middle of the day.

The good news is that you can trick your body to be more alert during the night by exposing yourself to bright artificial light and suppressing light exposure when you’re not working.

There are some small ways you can suppress light exposure:

• Wear dark sunglasses on your way home from work.
• Avoid looking at screens like televisions, computers and phones.
• Invest in blackout curtains to block the sun from your bedroom or use an eye mask.

3. What are you eating?

Eat sweets or drink a fizzy drink and you know you’ll have a sugar rush, but did you know there are other foods to avoid too if you want to help your sleep patterns.

Here’s how to alter your diet:

• Eat light meals regularly to avoid the sleepiness associated with eating lots
• Pick food that is easy to digest. This includes toast, rice, fruit, eggs and chicken.
• Avoid difficult to digest foods like fried, spicy or processed food.
• Stay hydrated

4. Caffeine can be a friend or a foe.

Most people will tell you they can’t start their day without a cup of coffee. Drinking coffee can also be extremely beneficial for people who work shifts, but not in the way that you think.

Instead of consuming a cup of coffee at the start of a shift try breaking it down into smaller and more frequent doses to maximise its effects. Studies have shown that people who drink their coffee like this feel more awake, perform better on cognitive tests and have fewer accidental naps.

Caffeine takes around 20 minutes to kick in, so you can drink some before a nap and you’ll feel even more alert when you wake up. You should stop drinking caffeine around 6 hours before you plan to go to bed to ensure it does not affect your sleep.

5. Nap if you need it.

Naps aren’t just for babies – taking a well-timed nap can help ensure you are not fatigued for work. Sleeping before your shift or during your break is a great way to counteract tiredness and restore brainpower. Even a 20 – 45-minute nap is beneficial.

The ideal maximum length for a nap is 45 minutes, any longer and you risk disrupting your main sleep later.

It’s important to remember that everybody is different, and it might take some experimenting to find what works best for you. But by adopting the tips above you can begin to see what helps you and your sleep patterns.