When we think of a full-time job, many of us think of a typical Monday through Friday, 9-5 schedule. But a lot of people don’t have this schedule. Millions of Americans work rotating shifts, evening shifts, and on-call positions. Some common professions with “abnormal” schedules include doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, police, and firefighters. They work all kinds of odd hours and may never actually have a consistent schedule. It is common for shift workers to sacrifice sleep, and this can have a negative impact on their mental and overall health.
We all have an internal clock in our brains that helps control things like body temperature, hormone levels, hunger, and when we feel alert or sleepy. This is the same clock that helps tell us when it is time to go to sleep and also when to wake up. This clock is called our circadian rhythm, and two things that help “set” this clock are daylight and darkness. Most adults feel the peak of sleepiness from midnight until 7 a.m. Working these odd shifts forces us to fight through the sleepiness to stay awake and work against our circadian rhythms. Then when the shift ends and it is light out, we try to sleep while we are alert.
Shift workers may find it hard to sleep in the daylight and often wind up sleep deprived. When they do sleep, they are more easily awakened by sounds or people and have a much lighter sleep. This leaves them waking up not feeling very rested, and it’s even possible for this to lead to insomnia in some cases. This problem may worsen if someone already has a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy.
Not only are shift workers less rested, but they may get sick more often than someone with a consistent sleep schedule. They may also find it hard to stay alerted at work, and this can lead to poor job performance or work-related accidents. Outside of work, there is the danger of driving home sleepy.
Feeling tired negatively affects attention, concentration, memory, reaction time, and also mood. It can put stress on personal relationships and pretty much any facet of your personal life.
It is unclear if our bodies can fully adapt to these schedules. Some research shows that it may take up to three years or so to adjust to the schedule of shift work, and other research suggests we may never adjust.
Even though there is a chance you may not adjust to working such an abnormal schedule, there are things you can do to make it a little bit easier on yourself. Strategies for coping depend on your personal needs, your job requirements, and what is going on in your home. Each individual’s needs are different, so not every coping strategy applies to everyone.
First of all, keep your workplace well-lit so your body tells you to be alert. Have coffee early in your shift to keep you alert, but limit your caffeine consumption later in your shift so it doesn’t prevent you from sleeping when you get home and go to bed. Then go right home; avoid running errands. Turn off your phone or at least put it on silent so your sleep doesn’t get interrupted by calls or text messages. Black out curtains in the bedroom are a big help to block out light. If your brain senses the light, it may keep you alert. Try and stick to the same bedtime and wake up at the same time every day. Also, make sure family or anyone in the house is aware you are sleeping and let you sleep without interruptions.
A nap can do your body some good, too. Taking a 90-minute nap before your shift starts can help you feel rested. Also if you can, on your lunch try and take a short nap of about 20 minutes. This will be just long enough to make you feel rested and alert. Talk to you sleep physician about other options like melatonin and other sleeping pills.
Although your body may never thoroughly adjust, these pointers can help you cope with your crazy schedule.
Author: Kristina Diaz, RRT is a Registered Respiratory Therapist and a health and wellness enthusiast and writer.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.