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Coping with shift work

Shift work isn’t easy because it involves working against your body’s natural rhythm. You need to be active and alert at night when your body is designed to sleep — and need to sleep in the day when you’re wired to be awake. Many shift workers are also driving at times when their body clock tells them to sleep — research has shown that shift workers are six times more likely to be in a fatigue-related road accident than other workers

Why it’s important to get enough sleep

Night-shift workers get an average of one to two hours less sleep per 24 hours than day workers, according to Western Australia’s Office of Road Safety. Sleep deprivation can affect your mood, health and work safety.

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How much sleep do I need?

To avoid fatigue, shift workers need to get as close to 7–8 hours of sleep as possible, which is the average amount of sleep for most adults. Losing two hours sleep a day for four days or nights can make you almost as sleep-deprived as missing a whole night of sleep. This increases the risk of accidents at work or on the road. Fatigue increases the risk of a ‘micro sleep’. This means falling asleep for a few brief seconds — dangerous if you’re driving or operating machinery.

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Tips for better sleep

  • Use curtains with block-out backing or blinds or cover the windows with black plastic garbage bags to reduce the light level in your bedroom during the day
  • Make sure the temperature in the bedroom isn’t too warm — cool conditions help you get to sleep and stay asleep
  • Try to make your bedroom as soundproof as possible. An air conditioner or fan can help mask external noise. Heavy curtains and sound insulation on doors and windows may reduce noise levels. Earplugs may help too.
  • If possible, unplug the phone and put a notice on your bedroom door to let people know you’re sleeping
  • Let friends, family and neighbours know your work schedule so that your sleep is undisturbed
  • Ask other household members to use headphones for the TV and stereo while you sleep
  • Avoid smoking. Research suggests that smokers have less restful sleep compared to non-smokers. This may be because nicotine is a stimulant.
  • Think about what you eat and drink before you go to sleep. Drinks containing caffeine — such as coffee, tea, cocoa and green tea — can keep you awake. Alcohol can make you sleepy at first but its effects can wake you up later on and can reduce your amount of deeper restorative sleep. Eating a heavy meal late in the night can also keep you awake.
  • You may need time to unwind between work and bedtime. Some shift workers prefer to go straight to bed, while others find it’s better to read or watch television to wind down first.
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Tips for managing different types of shift work

The Western Australia Government Office of Road Safety has the following advice for helping your body adjust to different shifts.

Fast shift rotations (changing shifts every few days):

  • Spend time in daylight before and after your night shift
  • Avoid heavy meals at night
  • Have a nap at home, preferably in the early afternoon, before your night shift
  • Have a 20–30 minute nap during your night shift if possible and allow at least 10 minutes to wake up before returning to work duties.

Slow shift rotations (changing shifts every week or so):

  • Go to bed as soon as you get home from night shift. Avoid a main sleep in the evening — sleep may be more difficult then because your body temperature is up and you’re more alert.
  • Have an afternoon nap if you didn’t get enough sleep in the morning
  • Avoid napping during the night shift unless you’re very sleepy — if you do nap, keep it short, no more than 20–30 minutes
  • Try to avoid exposure to early-morning daylight on the way home. Wearing sunglasses may help
  • Eat three regular meals a day including ‘lunch’ during your night shift
  • Daytime sleep is likely to be shorter and you may become tired after a few nights — usually just as you have to drive home in the morning. If this happens, find an alternative to driving yourself home.

After your last night shift try to adjust your body clock to being awake in daytime by:

  • Sleeping only two to three hours on the first morning after night shift and then get a good sleep that night and on the following nights
  • Get plenty of exposure to daylight (sunlight) on your days off as this will help adjust your body clock to a daytime setting.
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Permanent night shift

Permanent night workers or those returning to night shift after days off can try the tips above for slow shift rotation. On days off, try to be as nocturnal as possible:

  • Get up late in the morning (for example, after midday) and go to bed late at night (such as after midnight)
  • Avoid morning sunlight by staying indoors as much as possible or wearing sunglasses
  • Try to stay with your night shift schedule as much as possible.
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Safer driving — know the signs of fatigue

You may be fatigued if:

  • You can’t stop yawning
  • You have trouble keeping your head up
  • Your eyes close for a moment or go out of focus
  • You have wandering, disconnected thoughts.

Once fatigue has set in you need to stop and sleep — or find some way of getting home without driving yourself. If you drive while you are fatigued, you risk:

  • Not having any memory of driving the last few kilometres
  • Missing a gear
  • Missing a road sign or your exit
  • Slowing down unintentionally
  • Braking too late
  • Drifting over the centre line or onto the other side of the road.
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Further information

Better Health Channel. Shiftwork and health effects www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Shiftwork_health_effects

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Sources

National Sleep Foundation. Shift work and sleep. [online] Washington DC: National Sleep Foundation. c2009 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/shift-work-and-sleep

NT WorkSafe. Shiftwork. [online] Darwin, NT: Northern Territory Government. 2008 [accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.nt.gov.au

Office of Road Safety. Safer shiftworkers, safer roads — tips to help shiftworkers survive behind the wheel. Perth, WA: Government of Western Australia. 2009 [accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.ors.wa.gov.au

Patlak M. Your guide to healthy sleep. Bethseda, MD: National Heart Lung Blood Institute. 2005.

Saint-Mleux B Eggermann E Bisetti A et al. Nicotinic Enhancement of the Noradrenergic Inhibition of Sleep-Promoting Neurons in the Ventrolateral Preoptic Area. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2004; 24(1): 63–67.

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.