Working night shifts: personal stories about how to adjust

Graham Pembrey, Lead Editor, Health Content, Bupa UK
Head of Health Content at Bupa UK
02 October 2018

Are you one of the three million people in the UK who regularly work night shifts? From firefighters to factory workers, delivery drivers and doctors, there are lots of jobs we all depend on that simply need to keep going through the twilight hours.

Working nights can be tough on your body and mind. But there are also steps you can take to stay well and protect your health. We asked four late-working pros – an airline cabin crew member, a nurse and two doctors – what helps them to get through the night. Read on to find out what they said.

Keep the positives in mind

Working long into the early hours is bound to feel like a drag sometimes. But there can be practical advantages, and keeping these in mind could help to lift your mood.

Stephanie, airline cabin crew: “I’ve been working as cabin crew on long-haul flights, including overnight ones, for over 20 years. There are positives to night shifts. For one thing, there's no rush-hour traffic causing you stress on the way to work. I love the small things, like that time to myself during a day off. Night shifts also mean I’m used to functioning with less sleep – a good tool for being a mum to two young kids!”

Ellie, doctor: “I don’t mind night shifts. I tend to be able to switch between them and days fairly easily. I think how well you cope with working nights can be really personal, and influenced by whether you are more of a morning or evening kind of person. They seem to be easier for people who are night owls than for early birds.”

Leanne, nurse: “We get an increase in salary for working nights. Although this is small, it’s noticeable at the end of the month.”

Two nurses talking

Be aware of how night shifts can affect you

Every 24 hours, your body follows a cycle. You wake up and get going, before eventually winding down and returning to sleep. This is called your ‘circadian rhythm’ or body clock, and it’s guided by sunlight. When you work night shifts, it disrupts your circadian rhythm and creates a mismatch between your internal clock and the environment. So it’s no surprise that your mind and body may feel the effects.

Stephanie, airline cabin crew: “It can feel like you’re less alert at night. This means mundane tasks can be harder, but if an incident or emergency happens, my instincts kick in and I go straight into the procedures and actions needed. I suppose the adrenaline of a situation like that will wake anyone up.”

Leanne, nurse: “After four night shifts in a row, my mood was quite low and my appetite was off. I also found myself gaining weight because I was too tired to exercise, and eating inconsistently.”

Dentist working late

Have some caffeine if you need it

It’s understandably common to feel sleepy when you work nights. Having some caffeine can be a helpful way of combating sleepiness when you need to perform, by keeping you alert and potentially preventing accidents or mistakes. Just don’t have too much, and stop within six hours of when you plan to sleep after your shift.

Leanne, nurse: “I find it impossible to do night shift without some form of caffeine – even on busy nights when I’m running on adrenaline.”

Stephanie, cabin crew: “As we obviously have to stay alert in case of any emergencies, lots of coffee and sugary treats are a little temporary fix (even if not great for the waistline!).”

Ellie, doctor: “Coffee is sometimes what’s needed to get through a long night shift, but it can also take its toll on your ability to sleep the next day. I’d say drink coffee, cola or tea by all means, but stop around six hours before the end of your shift. That way the caffeine will be out of your system by the time you need to sleep again.”

Tom, doctor: “I try to space out teas and coffees throughout the night. It’s also important to keep hydrated by drinking water.”

Cup of coffee

Eat well during night shifts

You might be tempted to grab a chocolate bar from a vending machine or chips from a kebab shop during your shift. Aside from the convenience of these options in the early hours, foods that are rich in sugar and carbohydrates can appeal when you’re tired because they give you an energy boost. But too much of them can lead to putting on weight and having worse overall health. So try to stick to more nutritious options like fruit and pre-packed, balanced meals.

Tom, doctor: “I try to make sure I pack enough food and drink to last the night; healthy snacks and meals and opposed to the junk food that’s often available overnight. I always pack fruit, a salad and maybe a couple of breakfast bars.”

Ellie, doctor: “It can be hard to find healthy food at 3am, but I try to avoid the kebab shop, do a pre-night’s shop and prepare my meals in advance. I aim to have ‘supper’ before I leave for work, ‘lunch’ halfway through my shift and a pre-sleep snack when I get home from work.”

A woman chopping up a salad

Get home safely

So you’ve made it through the night and can finally relax – once you’ve made it home safely. Be really careful about this, particularly if you’re driving, as you may not realise quite how tired you actually are.

Ellie, doctor: “You’ll be tired if you’ve worked all night, especially if you didn’t sleep well (or at all) during the day before. If your commute is in the car, safety is your absolute priority. If you’re too tired to drive – DON’T! Make sure you have a plan to follow if you realise that’s the case as your shift ends. That might mean getting the bus, grabbing a lift from a colleague, shelling out for a taxi or getting someone to pick you up. It’s also worth finding out if your work has any rest facilities on site. If a quick nap could sort you out before heading home, that’s useful to know.”

Empty street at night

Wind down and relax

Once you get home, take time to unwind before jumping into bed. Doing so could help you sleep well when you eventually hit the hay.

Leanne, nurse: “It can be difficult to sleep after a shift. Unless I’m working another night shift, I try to only sleep for two or three hours during the next day, to get my body clock back in sync. It’s usually a case of just resting the day after a night shift.”

Stephanie, cabin crew: “For me, a nap the next day of no more than three hours is enough to keep me going, but not make me too groggy either, or stop me from sleeping that night.”

Ellie, doctor: “If you work in a high-pressured environment, the adrenaline is often still pumping when you get home. Combined with going to bed when it’s light, this can really make it difficult to drop off. I try to get into a routine of winding down. I might take a shower or bath, read a book, or do a mindfulness exercise. Hopefully, some relaxation will stop me tossing and turning and going over the night’s events.”

Tom, doctor: “Sleeping during the day can be difficult. I keep an eye mask and ear plugs handy and use them when needed! I adjust my expectations, accepting that, for example, getting by on only five hours of sleep is manageable over a short time period. This helps to keep me calm and stops me worrying about trying to get ‘enough sleep’. I also try to squeeze in some yoga or a run to de-stress before or after a night shift – while trying not to exercise too close to when I plan to sleep. I also play some of my favourite music and switch off.”

Woman reading a novel

Checklist for working nights

Here’s a checklist for working nights, based on guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the organisation that guides doctors.

  • Have a nap before and, if possible, during your night shift to avoid sleepiness.
  • Drink caffeinated drinks just before and during a night shift so you don’t become too sleepy ...
  • ... But avoid caffeine, alcohol or smoking within six hours of going to bed.
  • Get exposure to bright light during your shift if you can.
  • At the end of your shift, take time to relax before you go to bed.
  • Keep your sleeping environment comfortable: not too hot, cold, noisy or bright.
  • Exercise can be good after a night shift, but try not to exercise within four hours of when you plan to sleep.
  • Don’t have a heavy meal just before you go to bed.

Planning your schedule

You may want to think about how your night shifts are scheduled, if this is something you have any control over. Unhelpfully, experts aren’t completely agreed on the healthiest working patterns for people who do night shifts!

Some think a gradual clockwise rotation – for example, a morning shift followed by a day shift and then a night one – can help the body to adjust. Others believe a more rapid rotation from night shifts back to working days makes sense, because it minimises the amount of time you’re out of sync with the natural cycle of day and night. Another school of thought is that a long run of consecutive night shifts could be best, because it gives your body a consistent routine to adapt to.

If you don’t think your current working pattern is right for you, consider trying one of the alternatives. Speak to your GP and your employer if you’re worried about working night shifts, or feel like they’re having an effect on your mental or physical health.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Graham Pembrey, Lead Editor, Health Content, Bupa UK
Graham Pembrey (he/him)
Head of Health Content at Bupa UK

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.