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 give advice on how to adapt to shift work and how to stay healthy while doing it.
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 (if this is feasible) – but it can be difficult to fit these in.
It’s best not to work permanently on night shifts and ideally to limit your shifts to a maximum of 12 hours. If you switch between day and night shifts, try to arrange your schedule so that you have a minimum of two full nights sleep between them. This is because working shifts, and the effects it has on your sleep, can affect your health and increase your risk of having heart problems, for example.
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. You may find it helpful to use an alarm clock that’s incorporated into a light box – this is designed to produce very strong, bright light that is similar to natural daylight.
When you do wake up, try to do some physical activity to help you feel more energised and ready for your working day.
There are a variety of things you can do to while on your shift to make sure you stay alert.
If you find it hard to get to sleep during the day, there are several things you can try.
If you still find it hard to sleep, your GP may be able to give you further advice on the above or may refer you for other types of therapy (see Insomnia factsheet for more information).
Shift work throws your body out of sync and this can have an impact on how you feel. As you’re 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 may be that shift work is not for you and it may be worth looking for another job that isn’t based around shift work.
Published by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2012.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
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.
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