Sleep – the challenges

Shift workers often face challenges in relation to their sleeping patterns and eating habits. This is because our bodies have evolved to operate in a certain way – to be asleep during the night and awake during the daylight hours. This is known as the Circadian Rhythm, which controls our sleep, body temperature, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure to keep our bodies synchronised through the day-night cycle. Working shifts can work against the body’s natural programming, particularly in relation to sleeping and eating.

Why don’t we sleep as well on shift?

The sleep-wake cycle has also evolved for humans to be awake during the day light hours and to sleep at night. The brain subconsciously monitors the amount of light you see, moment by moment. In the evening, when the light starts to wane, your brain notices and prompts the release of a  chemical called melatonin, which gives the body the signal to fall asleep

The experts believe that it takes about 10 continuous days of working night shifts for the body to fully adjust to being awake through the night. However, working split shifts, or shift rotations of less than 10 days, puts the body clock out of kilter causing potential sleep problems as levels of melatonin (the hormone regulating sleep) do not quickly synchronise to new sleep times after shift changes.

To improve sleep during the day for night shift workers:

  • Keep the room dark – use heavy curtains, black out blinds or eye shades.
  • Adjust the temperature – cool temperatures improve sleep.
  • Disconnect any telephone in the bedroom. For other rooms turn the ringer down and use an answer machine.
  • Ask your family to keep the noise down.
  • Talk to your neighbours about your work pattern and ask them to try to avoid noisy activities during your sleep time whenever possible.
  • If noise is a problem, use ear plugs or background music to mask the external noises.
  • If you tend to sleep as soon as you get home off a night shift, or if your daytime sleep period was cut short, then an additional nap for up to 30 minutes just before work will help promote alertness and enhance your performance. Keep it short though, the longer you nap, the more likely you are to feel groggy afterwards.