Shift Work – Advice for the overworked, under-slept employees of the night

It’s well documented that shift workers are more susceptible to sleep disorders, are at increased risk for stomach ulcers, coronary heart disease, thrombosis, breast cancer, reproductive disorders and Type 2 Diabetes(1). The risks that come along with working a night-shift not only endanger the individual, but others as well – 41% of UK doctors have fallen asleep driving their car after a night shift(2).

There are now over 3 million night workers in the UK(3), many of whom are doctors and nurses, servicemen and women and essential security forces. People rely on those employed in these jobs, sometimes with their life, so understanding how they can ensure optimal performance is critical.

The following are top tips from leaders in advanced performance analytics company Firstbeat; the experts behind keeping top executives, workforces and elite athletes performing at their best.

Tips below from: Exercise Physiologist and Master Trainer, Tiina Hoffman at Firstbeat.

How to Nap.

Night shift workers can benefit from a “proper” nap (approx 90 mins long, i.e. a full sleep cycle) a few hours before the start of the night shift because they are rarely able to get a long enough sleep after the night shift. The pre-work nap and sleep after work are more likely to add up to the ideal 7-9 hours of sleep.

This is different from day shift workers who should focus on getting a long enough night sleep and only take a short power nap (15-20 mins) if needed.

When to exercise.

     After a busy evening or night shift, your body typically stays in a ‘stressed’ state (wired) for a few hours, even if you fall asleep. Some light exercise, like a walk, yoga or stretching can help speed up entering the recovery zone. However, avoid high intensity exercise after a shift, close to bedtime, as this can further delay recovery. Try and move intense exercise to the middle of the day, once you’ve ensured sufficient sleep.

Replenish and recharge battery on days off.

The more sleep deprived workers get, the more important it is to sleep even more than normal during the days off. This is different from day workers, who are best-off following very regular bed and wake-up times. Shift workers tend to deplete their internal battery, which is often not recharged sufficiently between shifts. The day following the night shift should focus on activities that promote recovery, such as relaxation exercises, light physical activity and other activities that do not stress the already exhausted body. This helps to recharge the body’s battery and resources. Very intense exercise further stresses the body, delaying recovery and diminishing vital resources.

Healthy lifestyle choices are key.

Alcohol consumption, unhealthy eating habits and poor aerobic fitness can ruin your ability to recover and slow down the replenishment of resources. The fitter and healthier you are and the less you drink, the better your chances of good recovery are. You are more likely to sleep better and have better quality recovery both during sleep and during the day, and can deal with stress better. This results in you being less tired and in a better place to take on the night’s stress. So, minimise alcohol consumption around night shifts, eat a well-balanced diet and get some fitness in where you can – simply going for a brisk walk can make a difference.