Nearly 15 million Americans work during the night, either as a full time arrangement or as part of a rotation system. While this can be incredibly handy for many workers, especially those with family or study commitments, there’s no doubt that it comes with its unique challenges also. The American Psychological Association has warned of the hazards of night shifts, explaining that 7% of all workplace related car accidents occur as a result of driver fatigue, and night workers are more likely to suffer from mental and physical health conditions such as depression and heart disease.
Whether you’re a night security warden, emergency room nurse or taxi driver, there are techniques you can adopt to make working the nights easier and kinder to your health.
Schedule Time for Sleep
This might seem like a given, but many workers forget to prioritize uninterrupted time before and after a night shift to relax or sleep. Fran Laukaitis, RN, MHA, and Chief Nursing Officer at Methodist Charlton Medical Center, says “Working at night interrupts your natural sleep pattern. You have to schedule your sleep.” She advises to unplug items like telephones and disconnect doorbells during this downtime, as well as closing curtains and communicating the importance of this time with family.
A manual published for Junior Doctors in the U.K goes on to suggest that no electronics should be used in the bedroom at all, dedicating that entire space solely to sleep.
Swap Caffeine Products
The great thing about caffeine products such as a delicious Italian roast coffee is that it gives you a big energy boost when fatigue kicks in. Unfortunately, this can hinder the process of getting to sleep after a night shift. There are a number of alternative methods you can use to wake up at the start of a shift. These can include Chinese green tea, which does contain some caffeine but lesser amounts than coffee, or even a pint of water with a dissolvable vitamin C supplement.
Fruit such as apples and bananas are also particularly effective at waking you up due to the fibre content.
Take a 2am Break
Our bodies work in natural cycles. When we sleep through the night, we normally enter the deepest phase at around 2am. When working a night shift, you’re fighting against your body’s natural rhythms and may find you become most fatigued around this time. Therefore, if possible, try to schedule a 15 minute break to avoid accidents, injuries or mistakes.
Find Some Light
Melatonin is the chemical that is released to make us sleepy. When we see light, our melatonin level decreases. Therefore, during a night shift, it’s important to find a light source in order to stop melatonin from setting in. It is possible to purchase a daylight machine which beams natural sunlight into a room, even where there is no light at all. Alternatively, simply ensuring that offices or work environments are well lit can make all the difference when trying to stay awake.
In a similar sense, looking at bright screens when trying to have your downtime at home will inhibit your ability to fall asleep, so it’s best to turn your phone or tablet screen off when trying to relax.
See a Doctor Regularly
Seeing as night shift workers are more at risk of developing certain health conditions than those that work 9-5, it’s important to get general check-ups at the doctor’s office. Blood pressure checks, mental health monitoring and even cholesterol and blood sugar tests may be needed to ensure you’re fit and well enough to be working night shifts. If you’re struggling with sleep, some doctors are able to prescribe medications that can help you ease into a new sleep rhythm, or offer you a non-medicated alternative such as hypnotherapy or acupuncture.
Retain a Work-Life Balance
A study published by TUC examining work life balance amongst night workers showed that night shifts can have a detrimental effect on family time and marriage quality, as well as maintaining a social life. To counter this, it’s important to plan ahead and put aside some planned family time and ‘self’ time. While most families follow similar routines, night workers are often sleeping by the time the kids come home from school, and may arrive home just as a partner is heading to the office. By using a family calendar and penciling in weekly family activities at times that suit everyone, you can be sure to invest some critical time into your personal life.
Night shifts serve an important function across numerous industries. Whether you’re just about to enter into night work for the first time, or have been struggling to get to grips with it for a while now, there are techniques you can adopt that’ll improve your quality of life and professional abilities in the workplace.
by Emma Rowlands