Pathways to Wellness

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Shift work and sleep

About 60-70% of people who do shift work – doctors, nurses, police, fire fights to name a few - experience disturbed sleep.  This makes sense: humans are not designed to be awake at night.  Also, shift workers often need to sleep when most of the rest of the world is awake and it is tempting to push through the fatigue instead of going to bed.

Shift work has been associated with sleepiness on the job and increased accidents and errors. There have also been some studies that report a link between shift work and increased risk for cancer.  However, according to the Mayo Clinic, these studies have “serious limitations” because they have not assessed and taken into account other factors which are known to increase risk for cancer (e.g., smoking).

There are no simple solutions for managing shift work but practicing good sleep habits (see How to get a better night’s sleep) may be even more important for shift workers than other workers.  If you are a shift worker, you may also want to:

  • Use black out curtains or eye masks, and run a fan or white noise generator to block out light and sounds that interfere with sleep
  • Enlist house mates or family members help in allowing  you to sleep uninterrupted at “odd times” – consider posting a “do not disturb” sign on the bedroom door.   Be prepared to “train” those who share your house.
  • Take a short (30 minute nap) before the start of a night shift, or during a break,  which can help with sleepiness at work.  Avoid longer sleeps which tend to make you groggy.

The most successful shift workers actually schedule sleep – they block out time for sleep in advance and stick with this schedule no matter what. Interestingly it is also better to maintain the same schedule for 7 days, than to shift sleep cycles more frequently.

Finally, it is less disruptive when shifts rotate from day to evening to night than the other way around.  If your workplace rotates shifts from night to evening to day, you may want to speak with management about options for changing the rotation cycle.

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