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Staying healthy on the graveyard shift: sleep and wellness tips for night and shift workers 

Are you a night or shift worker struggling to prioritise your sleep and health whilst working odd hours? Working during the night or rotating shifts results in irregular sleep patterns that disrupt your body’s internal clock and take a toll on your physical and mental health, but with the right wellness strategies you can prioritise your sleep and improve your wellbeing. From establishing a consistent sleep routine, to nutritional advice and stress management techniques, explore these essential tips designed for night workers like you and don’t let the challenges of your schedule compromise your health any longer.

Challenges for night workers

Whether you have been working at night for many years, or have only just started your first shift job, then it is likely that you have already noticed the toll that these roles can take on your sleep schedule. These jobs, by definition, require you to have a routine that may not align with your natural clock, as well as the schedule of your family, children, and even other coworkers, which can be disorienting and hard to adjust to.

Despite getting used to your schedule over time, the unpredictability of your routine and the different times you sleep throughout the week will have a significant impact on your sleep schedule and your overall emotional and physical health. Physically, you are more likely to experience sleep disorders, a weakened immune response, lower metabolism, and even an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Emotionally, the irregular schedule and the potential for sleep deprivation is likely to lead to higher levels of stress, mood swings, and the development of mental challenges such as depression and anxiety, as well as impacting your productivity, relationships, and quality of life.

So, if you love your job and enjoy the flexibility that comes with a shift or night role, then it’s important to prioritise your health and ensure that you are able to keep doing the job without compromising your own happiness or health. So, here are our top tips for putting your needs first once you clock off from work.

1. Optimise your sleep space

Separate the quality of sleep from the unpredictability of your routine by creating a dark, quiet, and cosy bedroom that encourages you to get the most out of your sleep. Having a designated space that promotes relaxation and deep sleep will counteract the disruptive effects of an irregular sleeping schedule on the body’s natural sleep cycle and minimise the risk of sleep deprivation, so it is well worth the investment.

The first step is to ensure that the room is dark, even during the middle of the day, to accommodate your shifts. Use blackout curtains for the best results, or invest in a comfortable sleep mask, and invest in comfortable bedding, pillows, and a durable, supportive mattress that suits your personal comfort preferences. To encourage your body to sleep during the times that suit your schedule, rather than according to your natural body clock, will require a little extra work, such as minimising noise with earplugs or a white noise machine if you live in an area that has a lot of background noise during the day. Finally, if you have a little extra budget left to play with, an alarm clock that glows will complete the space and make it easier for you to wake up for your shifts, particularly if you purchase one that can be programmed to play soft, natural sounds to wake you up.

These modifications will mimic night-time conditions, facilitating deeper, more restorative sleep, and will help you to manage the unique challenges of your schedule with improved mood, cognitive function, and overall health.

2. Maintain a schedule

Even on your days off, it is important to try and maintain a consistent sleep routine to regulate your internal clock and make it easier to fall asleep and wake up when you need to. Waking up at a similar time, and making the conscious choice to sleep at the same time every day, will also make it easier for you to minimise the strain on your body and mind of an erratic sleep schedule, and enhance the quality and duration of your sleep every day.

3. Nutritional management

If you regularly find yourself struggling to find the time to eat good, balanced meals around work, or you frequently snack on a shift, then improving your eating habits will make a huge difference to your sleeping habits and ongoing health.

Eating a balanced meal rich in proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats 2-3 hours before your shift helps sustain energy levels without causing drowsiness, and having small, nutritious snacks during the shift can maintain alertness and prevent energy dips. Finally, after your shifts, you should avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods in the run up to bedtime, as they will make it harder for you to sleep and will likely disrupt your sleep, and it is also a good idea to limit your caffeine intake in the latter half of your shift.

As a general rule, you should try to eat balanced meals at regular times throughout the day, either at the same time every day or at evenly-spaced intervals according to your shifts, and you should always prioritise hydration, both during your working hours and around them. Adhering to these dietary guidelines can help stabilise mood, improve performance, and enhance sleep quality, all of which are vital for maintaining your long-term health and your performance at your job.

4. Incorporate wellness practices

Incorporating wellness practices into your daily routine offers extensive physical, mental, and emotional benefits, and is a powerful strategy for maintaining your balance and health during long or demanding shifts.

Whilst you may be swift to dismiss wellness practices as a nice idea but not a tangible strategy to implement into your routine, engaging in regular physical activity, such as light exercise or yoga, can significantly improve sleep quality, reduce stress levels, and boost overall energy, whilst mindfulness techniques, including meditation and deep-breathing exercises, help you to manage stress and enhance mental clarity, particularly during irregular work hours.

Engaging in these light and accessible physical activities, depending upon the needs of your schedule and suiting your preferences, will help you to foster resilience against the stresses and challenges associated with working in shifts, as well as improving your moods and regulating your emotions with the endorphins that physical exercise releases.

5. Employee support

Whilst creating a comfortable sleeping space and prioritising good nutrition are all effective ways for you to manage your own health and improve your wellbeing, it is also your employer’s responsibility to create a positive and supportive work environment.

Whether you work in a high-stress environment or a physically demanding role, take the time to explore what provisions your business has in place to support you. These may include:

  • Flexible working arrangements or hours, which allow you to schedule your own shifts and create a schedule that works for you.
  • Access to health and wellness programs, including fitness memberships and mental health support, to address the unique mental health challenges faced by shift workers and promote strategies for better sleep and stress management.
  • Fostering an environment that encourages healthy eating by offering nutritious meal options during night shifts and alternative snacks and drinks to the usual highly caffeinated, high-sugar options.
  • Investing in educational initiatives to raise awareness about the importance of sleeping schedules, stress management, and the adverse effects of caffeine and substance reliance.
  • Creating a supportive workplace that acknowledges and adapts to the needs of night workers and makes sure that you and your colleagues feel comfortable approaching management or HR with any issues you are having regarding your sleep or health.

These provisions help contribute to a more engaged and satisfied workforce, but they are not enough on their own. In the UK, employers are required by law to offer regular night worker medical examinations to their employees working at least 3 hours between midnight and 5am, and as the business is the one requiring you to work shifts or overnight, your sleep schedule and wellbeing are an occupational health requirement that your employer has an obligation to support you with.

For example, if you work overnight, then your business should be supporting you with occupational health services that focus on addressing the specific risks associated with night or shift work. This proactive approach focuses upon preventing work-related illnesses and injuries, particularly those exacerbated by unconventional working hours, and by offering regular health screenings, employers can identify and mitigate potential health risks early, such as sleep disorders, mental health issues, and chronic fatigue.

Night worker medical examinations

Investing in the health and well-being of shift and night workers is not just a professional responsibility, but also a legal obligation. By partnering with Heathrow Medical for HSE-approved night and shift worker medicals, businesses can ensure their workforce remains healthy, productive, and engaged, so make the choice to prioritise your employees’ health today.

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