Challenges of shift work

Many Australians are living life in reverse - working through the night and sleeping during the day. Factory workers, fire fighters, police officers, security officers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, office cleaners and many others - all work irregular hours; working at night or on rotating shifts.

It’s difficult to stay happy and healthy when you feel as though you are constantly fighting against yourself and your body’s sunlight sensitive, internal, 24-hour clock that wants you to be asleep when it’s dark and awake during the day. Operating outside the routine of your family, friends and surrounding social structures can present a range of challenges, including: sleep disturbances, drowsiness, fatigue, insomnia, digestive problems, mood disturbances (depression, anxiety and irritability), social isolation, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

The following 10 tips can help you control the effects of shift work on your wellbeing.

1. Be strategic about your exposure to light and noise

If possible, try to get a minimum of 5-10 minutes of natural sunlight before you start work. If your day starts when it’s already dark, ensure that the kitchen and bathroom - where you are preparing for work - are brightly lit. Try to stimulate ‘morning noise’ and listen to news, radio or podcasts (with headphones, if necessary). 

Invest in quality block-out curtains and make sure your bedroom stays as dark as possible.  Ask other people to keep noise to a minimum while you are sleeping. Little things like using headphones to watch the TV can go a long way in reducing household noise.

Wear dark glasses and a hat when travelling home from a night shift. Resist the urge to run errands at the end of your shift and stay out of direct sunlight when you’re heading home to sleep.

2. Ask for support from your family, friends and the people you live with

Give people specific tasks they can do to help you – like running your errands when you need to get straight home. Give the people that care about you an opportunity to support you. Talk to someone if you are struggling emotionally or physically.

3. Take power naps, recharge rests and engage with others to stay alert at work

Take a 20-30 minute power nap before you start your shift and try taking ‘recharge rests’ during your shift. This can be as simple as taking a few minutes to sit quietly and focus on your breath. If your work doesn’t allow for quiet time, make sure you take breaks to chat with your colleagues – keep each other engaged and alert.

4. Stay socially active and connected to your community

Try to find other people, aside from colleagues, that also work irregular hours. Search for social meet-ups for shift workers online. If there isn’t one in your area, start your own. Ask local sporting teams if you can enlist as a stand-in or drop into training sessions when you can. Find classes of general interest that allow casual attendance.

5. Prioritise your physical health – it’s all about exercise and diet

Find a 24-hour gym and get a workout in before you start your shift. After your shift, if you are tired or have already been doing physical work, try gentle stretching, walking or using an exercise bike.

Take pre-prepared food from home to work and resist the temptation to eat sugar and fast food. Avoid large heavy meals and try to eat small, consistent, portions throughout the day. You want slow release energy foods that won’t leave you feeling sluggish – carrots, apples, nuts, dried fruit, sweet potato, rice and oats.

Keep a bottle of water with you and stay hydrated. Try to sit down and pause for a moment while you eat.

6. Avoid ‘quick fixes’

Avoid quick fixes like caffeine, alcohol and sleep medication. They might help you to stay awake or fall asleep in the short-term but long-term use can lead to dependency and have negative secondary health consequences.

7. If you can’t sleep, make sure you’re still resting

If you’re having difficulty sleeping, avoid looking at your phone, laptop or watching TV. Try using a guided body relaxation meditation. If you do need to get out of bed, try to stay in a dimly lit space and practice some gentle stretching or take a bath.

8. Keep a positive attitude towards shift work

Cultivate a ‘commitment to shift work’ and remind yourself what the benefits are to you. Missing peak hour traffic? Receiving penalty rates? Free some weekdays to spend time with children? Commit to keeping positive. Keep your mind present and focus on one shift at a time.

9. Be extra cautious when you’re feeling drowsy

Don’t drive home if you’re feeling drowsy – use public transport or ask someone to pick you up. Be aware of when you’re struggling and take extra care at work and at home.

10. Plan your time and keep daily rituals

Integrating the above health tips can help you develop daily rituals and give you a sense of stability. Plan your work, relaxation, exercise and sleep time each day and try to stick to it. Find the balance that works for you.

Sources

Heidi M. Lammers-van der Holst & Gerard A. Kerkhof (2015) Shift work tolerance and the importance of sleep quality: a study of police officers, Biological Rhythm Research, 46:2, 257-264.

Mark R. Smith and Charmane Eastman (2012) Shift Work: health, performance and safety problems, traditional countermenasures, and innovative management strategies to reduce circadian misalignment, Dove Press Journal Nature and Science of Sleep, 2012:4, 111-132.

Vogel M, Braungardt T, Meyer W, Schneider W (2012) The effects of shift work on physical and mental health, J Neural Trans, 119, 1121–1132.