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Adjusting Your Sleep to Fit a New Work Schedule

 

Construction Worker at Night

Most workers are on the job during the day, but about 23.7 million Americans are working evening, night, rotating and irregular shifts. Shift work can significantly impact daily life, disrupting family time, leisure activities, social events and sleep. If your routines are thrown off because you're heading to work at odd hours, try to ease the disruption by adjusting your sleep to fit a new work schedule.

What is Shift Work?

Shift work is common in sectors that operate around-the-clock or for extended hours, such as health care, hospitality, manufacturing, industry, law enforcement and transportation. Workers are typically scheduled in two or three continuous shifts to ensure responsibilities are covered at all times.

Some employees have fixed shifts, while others take turns rotating through shifts over the course of several days or weeks. Shift work can also occur on weekends.

About 16% of the working population in the United States works a non-daytime schedule, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Role of Circadian Rhythms

Whether you're making a one-time schedule change for a new job or routinely switching shifts, it's challenging to get adequate sleep. Our bodies are on a 24-hour cycle governed by our circadian rhythms. We're naturally inclined to be active during the day and sleeping at night, taking cues from factors, such as bright light and darkness.

Adjusting your sleep to fit a new work schedule is possible, but you must keep your body's natural inclinations in mind. For example:

  • We tend to be most alert in the morning and early afternoon, when body temperature, metabolism and activity levels are highest.
  • Drowsiness occurs naturally between midnight and 6 a.m. when body temperature and metabolism are usually lowest. There's also a period of sleepiness mid- to late-afternoon, between about 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

5 Tips for Adjusting Your Sleep to Fit a New Work Schedule

Here are ways to help your body get used to a new routine when you're working against your circadian rhythms.

1. Gradually Adjust Your Sleep and Wake Times

Once you know your work schedule is changing, plan your new sleep and wake times so you can achieve the recommended seven hours or more of sleep.

Make changes gradually in advance of the new shift. If you're moving to an evening or overnight schedule, start going to bed an hour or two later each night. Try to get as close as possible to your optimal bedtime by the time you change schedules, so it's less jarring to your system.

If you're changing from a night shift to a daytime one, try to stay awake after completing your last night shift. Go to bed in the early evening and set your alarm for your new wake-up time.

2. Give Your Body Cues to Sleep

When adjusting your sleep to fit a new work schedule, think about ways to signal to your body that it's time to rest. Try some of these strategies:

  • Wear a pair of sunglasses to simulate darkness when heading into the sunshine after work.
  • Avoid using TVs, computers and smartphones right before bed to reduce your exposure to blue-light waves, which make it harder to fall and stay asleep.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and rich foods before going to bed.
  • Create a bedtime routine that includes relaxation or meditation.
  • Use earplugs, blackout curtains, a sleep mask or a white noise machine in your bedroom.

3. Signal Your Body to Wake Up

Research shows that exposure to light can advance our circadian rhythms. Give your body cues to wake up by simulating daylight.

  • If you're waking up in the afternoon for an evening shift, open your window blinds to let in light or go outside and absorb some sun.
  • When you wake up in the middle of the night, turn on bright lamps or spend some time on a computer or smartphone.

4. Watch the Timing of Exercise

No matter what time of day you're working, be sure to maintain your health and fitness. Keep in mind that exercise tends to make you more alert.

  • Avoid exercising right before you need to sleep.
  • Plan on moderate cardiovascular exercise before work to help you wake up. Evening exercise is best before a night shift. Try morning exercise if you're switching to a day shift.

5. Maintain a Regular Routine

While it's tempting to return to normal behaviors on your days off, consistency is key to getting used to a new schedule. Wake up, eat meals and go to sleep at the same time. Going back to your old schedule for even a day confuses your internal clock and makes it harder to adapt.

Health Effects of a New Work Schedule

While it's possible to change your sleep routine, it's not always easy. Here are some difficulties you may experience.

Poor Quality of Sleep

Daytime sleep is not as restful as nighttime sleep. It's up to three hours shorter in duration and often of poorer quality because of light and noise. Workers on the night shift sleep the worst, particularly those on rotational shifts.

Fatigue

When your routine is constantly changing, it's hard to recover from a sleep deficit. Continued disruptions can cause fatigue, lack of concentration, reduced motivation and health problems.

Stress

A change in sleep routine can also impact other parts of your life.

  • Family and friends may be on different schedules, making it harder to see them.
  • Social events may take place while you're sleeping or at work.
  • It's harder to participate in daytime sports and activities.
  • Household members must limit activities during the time that you're asleep.

Many workers have no option but to work rotating or night shifts if asked by their employer. Try some of the tips outlined in this article to improve your sleep so you can be as well-rested as possible.

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