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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

Tips for working (and living) in time shifts

10 min read
Tips for working (and living) in time shifts
Working in time shifts is more common than you might think. If organized properly, it can become a new normal without too much disruption. If you can overcome the challenges, an ability to work at abnormal times could be a competitive advantage.

Not all of us sleep at night. As some put our heads down onto the pillow, others are doing their normal jobs. Whether you are a nurse on a night shift, construction worker, or call center employee, shift work is uniquely demanding. While those with experience can slot into a comfortable working pattern, someone who is contemplating a move into a role with atypical shift work will likely be daunted by the practicalities.

Around 15% of employees across the world work non-daytime shifts. That may seem high, but in our 24/7 world it isn’t so surprising. This does not count the millions of fresh remote workers who burn the midnight oil because their flexible working conditions now allow it.

While fixed night/day shifts can allow you to plan ahead, many roles entail rotating time shifts that can really mess with your equilibrium. When your time at work is always shifting, what mechanisms are there to help you to cope? In this blog, we explore:

  • How can working in time shifts impact productivity?
  • How to sleep during time shifts
  • Nutrition when working at a strange time
  • Looking after your health during shift work
  • The dangers of driving to work when you are tired
  • How to stay awake when working in time shifts

Working in time shifts need not be daunting. Let’s dive into the sleepy details.

How can working in time shifts impact productivity?

When your work takes place between the hours of 7pm to 6am, productivity both inside and outside the workplace can take a knock. If you are not conscious about how you spend your time, you may not be fully present for your loved ones or be as sharp as you need to be for your colleagues. Whether you are working rotating shifts, fixed hours, or split shifts, any shift in working time can significantly diminish your impact.

People have been working at unnatural times since the advent of the candle. It is nothing new. Making this time as productive as possible is just a matter of designing the right routine that fits your situation. Taking control of your productivity is a choice that should flex with your situation and your wellbeing – you should go extra easy on yourself when you are feeling ill, for example.

The main thing to avoid is confusion. If your body and mind are expecting to sleep because they have had too much stimulation at the wrong time, be clear about what you are doing and take some extra time to think through any actions. Caution is your friend when you are aware that you are over-tired. Do not rush if it entails risking mistakes that can derail your productivity even further.

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How to sleep during time shifts

Designated sleep time is essential when your job entails shift work. While your biorhythms need to change, this sleep time should also be respected by those around you. Maintaining this sleep pattern on a consistent basis is key to developing habits to allow you to thrive during your time at work. Grabbing a few hours of sleep here and there is not enough – your “new night” should be as sacred as the normal type.

It is also important that colleagues and partners are aware that you are working abnormal time shifts. Make people aware of your schedule to avoid any calls while you might be sleeping. Turning off your mobile is the best idea in this case.

If you have problems sleeping at strange times, a split nap might help. It is important that you wake up as close as possible to the start of your working shift. Some people choose to have a nap for an hour or two when they come home, get a few chores done and relax for a couple of hours and then have a longer period of 5-6 hours proper sleep. In this way, you won’t be too tired when you do enter your longer period of slumber, but you will still be tired enough to fall asleep. Trial and error is important here as we are all different - make sure that you don’t experiment for long.

There are several other things to consider when organizing your sleep schedule:

  • Make sure that your room is as dark as possible if sleeping during the day.
  • Turn your phone off and put an out-of-office on your emails.
  • Minimize noise exposure where possible – maybe consider ear plugs?
  • Meditate or relax before bed – a warm bath may help some people.
  • Avoid the artificial light of devices immediately before sleep.

Adjusting your sleep schedule is important if you have a mix of night and day work. Stick to your routine once you have found something that works for you.

Nutrition when working in shifts

It is tough to fall asleep if you have just had a huge meal, so break down your nutrition into more manageable light snacks. Choose foods that are easier to digest such as pasta, rice, and bread. Fruit and vegetables release their energy slowly, so they are a good choice for your relaxing period after work before you fall asleep.

Dehydration can reduce mental performance, so drink plenty of water when you are at home and at work. It should be said that too much drink before sleep can overload the bladder and force you to get up when you should be snoozing.

Avoid any foods that will cause your energy to spike and drop such as sugary treats or chocolate. This might be exactly what you crave after a tough shift, but you may suffer the consequences when it comes to putting your head down on the pillow.

Looking after your health during shift work

Shift work disorder is a debilitating medical condition. When the symptoms of insomnia interfere with normal operations of your body, it can seem like you are swimming in concrete. No amount of mental resilience will help when your brain shuts down.

Cognitive impairment can lead to permanent neural damage. If you allow your brain to function under such stress on a regular basis, your productivity may never get back to normal. Expecting too much of your neural pathways can cause them to warp to such an extent that you literally do not understand which way is up. Working in a state of persistent insomnia is debilitating for so many reasons. Be careful.

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The dangers of driving to work when you are tired

The commute to work at both ends of a shift can be dangerous if you are not fully awake. Allow plenty of time for the journey and drive defensively – speed is not your friend when your body thinks that it should be sleeping. 

The period of midnight to 6am is particularly hazardous for driving. Taking a nap before you set off is ideal if you have time to spare, but if you feel your eyes closing during a commute it is best to stop and be a little late than not get there at all. If you are careful about your normal sleep schedule, this should ideally not happen often.

Share driving if possible or consider potential public transport options if you know that your work schedule will be particularly disruptive. 

How to stay awake during shift work

While some may fall back on the medical properties of stimulants and sedatives, there are plenty of natural ways to get a better sleep when you need to get some shut eye at an unnatural time. Understanding the rhythms of your body can be just as effective as brutally shutting it down with addictive chemicals.

Drinking coffee during a shift, for example, can certainly make a short-term impact. Having said this, if you drink it less than four hours before you are due to sleep, it can inhibit the quality of your slumber. A coffee or caffeinated soda is a great way to get your shift off to a bang, followed by moderate top ups as required.

While you might not be able to take a nap at work, shutting your eyes for 15 minutes in a “coffee nap” may increase the impact of the caffeine hit. The mere act of shutting your eyes reduces the levels of stimulation in your brain and allows you to leap into action once the coffee takes effect. It is better to be charging hard for 45 minutes of every hour than plodding along without a break.

Any regular use of sedatives or sleeping pills should be approached with caution. They can prove highly addictive, and you never quite know how your body may react before you take them. Other new drugs that alter our state of alertness when we are awake are available but have not been properly researched. Putting chemicals into your body that may disrupt your life even more may not be the best solution.

Key takeaways

Our bodies and minds are amazing things – if trained in the right way, they can get used to almost any sleep situation. The most important thing is the amount of sleep and its quality. When you sleep is not actually that critical – so long as you do everything else right.

  • Be fiercely protective about your carefully considered sleep schedule.
  • Eat, exercise, and relax at the right points in your down time.
  • Think about your long-term health when it comes to medication.
  • Be incredibly careful on the roads if you are driving while fatigued.
  • Find strategies that help you to stay awake during your shifts.
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