Many important processes occur in the body and mind while we sleep. Sleep provides the rest necessary for the immune system to fight disease, and is the time when hormones are being produced to repair tissues and maintain the chemical balance in the body. Generally a healthy adult needs an average of 8 hours sleep a night. You know you are sleeping well when you wake up alert and refreshed.
During sleep the mind processes information, positive emotional content, thoughts and memories from the day. Brain activity increases and decreases during different sleep stages. Sufficient, quality sleep can have a beneficial impact on mood, behaviour and energy levels, improved concentration, thought processing and coping strategies. It’s easy to see why sleep is very important for good physical and mental health.
Shift work can directly and indirectly disrupt your sleep patterns and circadian rhythm. This in turn can disrupt your ability to manage emotions, stress, and general life challenges such as difficulties with work, study and/or relationships. Steps to improve quality sleep can form part of an individual's preventive mental health and wellbeing plan.
Sleep and shift work
Working late or irregular shifts can affect the quality of your sleep. Shift workers sleep 2 to 4 hours less than the average person.
We all have a 24-hour body clock that sets the rhythm of our sleep-wake cycle. Humans have been programmed to be awake during the day and asleep during the night.
This programming is cued by exposure to light and dark and is called the circadian rhythm. Over the 24-hour cycle, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature rise over the day in preparation for activity and fall overnight, helping us slow down and to feel sleepy. Digestion also slows down overnight. With the break from regular circadian rhythms, it’s no surprise that shift workers commonly experience digestive issues and problems with fatigue and concentration.
Keep in mind different people need slightly different amounts of sleep. If your irregular work pattern is taking a toll on your overall wellbeing, here's some tips for creating a sleep schedule for getting optimal, restorative sleep when you can.
10 ways to manage shift work and maximise sleep:
- Take a 'power' nap of about 90 minutes before you go on a night shift.
- Try to do the tasks that need more concentration earlier in the shift.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol four hours before you go to bed.
- Eat three balanced meals over the course of the day. Regular mealtimes cue your body to know when it is time to sleep. Avoid eating the largest meal of the day within three hours of sleep.
- Talk with your manager about creating a healthy workspace. The best workplace is bright and cool, to help employees maintain alertness.
- Make your bedroom as comfortable as possible. The room should be quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Use block-out curtains to keep the room dark. Remove technology, use earplugs and an eye mask if needed. A fan or “white noise” machine can help with relaxation and muffle outside noise pollution.
- If possible, wear sunglasses to avoid bright lights after your night shift until going to bed. Bright light tells your brain it's time to be awake; by avoiding or decreasing light exposure you can 'trick' your brain into wanting to sleep.
- Talk with your family about what they can do to support your sleep routine. Get their help to maximise chances of having uninterrupted sleep and avoiding noisy activities.
- Create a schedule of your shift times and sleep schedule and put it up on the fridge so everyone can see it. Also include planned activities that you can look forward to doing together with your partner, roommate, family, and friends.
- If you have children, set rules around when you can be interrupted and when you can’t – be specific and give examples.
What is good sleep?
The amount of sleep needed is different for each person according to their age and life stage. Younger people often need more sleep, while the ability to sleep for 6-8 hours at one time may reduce as people get older. Generally a healthy adult needs an average of 8 hours sleep a night. You know you are sleeping well when you wake up alert and refreshed.
Do I have a sleep problem?
A sleeping problem is generally described as not getting enough sleep or having poor quality sleep. You may have trouble falling asleep, wake frequently throughout the night or wake up very early in the morning. As well as insomnia, some people also experience medical problems including sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome, disturbed dreams and nightmares. If you experience sleep problems for a month or more, you should consult your G.P.
When you miss out on good sleep, you may experience the following issues:
- apathy and loss of energy
- problems with concentration and impaired judgement
- an inability to deal with stress
- risk of physical health issues e.g. heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes
- mood problems and irritability
- an inability to perform complex tasks in terms of speed and accuracy
- potential illness and workplace accidents
What causes sleep problems?
Sleep problems can happen for many reasons. Environmental factors including noise, light or temperature can interrupt your sleep. Psycho-physiological issues such as stress, shift work disrupting the natural body clock, health problems or mental health concerns can all affect sleep.
Poor nutrition and dehydration will also contribute to you feeling fatigued.
It’s helpful to start by understanding your sleeping patterns. Keeping a sleep diary for one to two weeks can help you pinpoint what things are helping or hindering your ability to have a restful night’s sleep.
Tips for better sleep
During the 'day' / waking hours:
- include regular exercise into the waking hours of your shift work and sleep schedule
- if you're not a shift worker, exercise regularly during the day or early evening
- get out in the sunlight and fresh air when possible, during daylight hours
- keep naps under 15 minutes, and not after 3:00pm
- if you have time before your shift, change your bedsheets. Coming home to a fresh bed after a long shift helps with relaxation and a more comfortable sleep. In a study by the Sleep Foundation, their research found a strong correlation for people with clean sheets reporting a 19% better and more restful sleep.
- drink a warm milk or relaxing herbal tea
- avoid smoking, especially late in the evening. Nicotine is a stimulant that can keep you awake
- set a regular sleep pattern if you’re not a shift worker. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, including weekends
- try going to bed a little later if you find you are waking too early in the morning
- have a hot shower or warm bubble bath before bed. The rapid cool down in temperature afterwards relaxes the body and sets you up for a more restful sleep
- face digital clocks/watches away from your bed or remove them from the room altogether
- wind down before sleep by writing down any persistent worries. Give yourself permission to put these worries aside until the morning
- use a visualisation strategy or relaxation techniques (such as relaxation music or mindfulness apps) to help you get ready for sleep
- sleeping pills should only be used as a short-term solution, and under the guidance of a GP. If you're experiencing sleep problems, speak with your GP about natural sleep supplements first, and other strategies for creating healthy sleep habits.
- bed should only be associated with sleep and sex / intimacy
- don’t watch TV, use laptops or smartphones in bed. The bright light from the screen reduces the production of melatonin, the hormone produced in our body that, simply put, tells our brain it’s time to sleep
- charge phones overnight outside of the bedroom. If you need to have your phone in the room, lower the brightness of your screen using the 'Night Shift' mode
- shut down video games and stop scrolling through social media at least 30-60 minutes before bed. If you find quiet reading helps to make you sleepy, read for a short time
- try a mindfulness exercise if you find it hard to wind down or 'switch off' before going to bed
- make sure your room and bed is comfortable. You want to create a dark and quiet room with a comfortable bed and a moderate room temperature, ideally between 15-18 degrees
- wear earplugs if your partner snores or your environment is noisy.
When you get enough sleep - quality, restorative sleep - research tells us it's much easier to manage emotions, have more patience, concentration, energy levels and the capacity to better deal with the stressors associated with the emergency services work environment. Therefore, it is essential for shift workers and employees working irregular hours to use resources offered and put strategies in place for healthy sleep habits.