Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, October 2010.
Our growing 24-hour culture means that more people are working shifts than ever. Our internal body clocks are usually set to follow the natural cycle of day and night, so breaking this cycle can be challenging. This article will outline tips about how to adapt to shift work and how to stay healthy while doing it.
What works for you?
Shift work affects everyone differently and some people naturally adapt better than others. Much depends on your personal circumstances, responsibilities and fitness, as well as how well you can change your behaviour to fit around your job.
If you’re starting shift work, the first step is to work out the best time to sleep, so it fits in with your schedule and you feel refreshed in time for your next shift. You may need to experiment to find out what works for you.
Many people find it easier to delay sleep when they first start working shifts, rather than trying to force themselves to sleep earlier. So you may find you prefer to go to bed straight after your shift at first. However, some people get on better if they sleep a bit later in the day, so that they get up just before work. What works best for you will depend on how long your shift is, what time your shift starts and ends, and your responsibilities at home. This may also change if you have to move from working night shifts to day shifts and vice versa.
You may also find it helpful to plan short naps before or during your shift – but it can be difficult to fit these in.
Daylight usually acts as a natural cue to tell our bodies when it’s time to wake. If you’re working shifts, a well-functioning alarm clock may be the only way to ensure you wake up on time every day. When you do wake up, try to do some physical activity to help you feel more energised and ready for your working day. You may also find it helpful to use a light box – these are designed to produce very strong, bright light that is similar to natural daylight.
On your shift
There are a variety of things you can do to while on your shift to make sure you stay alert.
Getting to sleep
If you find it hard getting to sleep during the day, there are several things you can try.
If you still find it hard to sleep, see your GP for advice. Your GP may prescribe a short course of a hypnotic drug to help you sleep. However, these aren’t usually prescribed for longer than two weeks. If you continue to have trouble sleeping, your GP may refer you for other types of therapy (see Insomnia for more information). Or you may prefer to seek employment that isn’t based around shift work.
Shift work throws your body out of sync and this can have an impact on how you feel. As you are working against your natural sleep pattern, it’s even more important that you maintain healthy habits.
Finally, if you continue finding it hard to adapt to a new routine, it’s worth going to see your GP for advice.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the About our Health Information page.
Publication date: December 2010
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