Sleep tips for shift workers

A Q&A with sleep expert Dr Moira Junge

Dr Moira Junge

Sleep tips for shift workers

A Q&A with sleep expert Dr Moira Junge

Dr Moira Junge

Working shift hours can come at a cost to your health and wellbeing. But it doesn’t have to mean less sleep. Here, sleep expert and CEO of Sleep Health Foundation Moira Junge shares her tips on how to get enough sleep to sustain you.

On average, shift workers get two to three hours less sleep than other workers. How significant is that?

Dr Junge: Shift workers make up at least 20% of the workforce and, as we adapt to our 24/7 ‘switched on’ society, it’s so important that we have health solutions and supports for shift workers – especially relating to getting enough sleep.

I want shift workers to know that they still need the same amount of sleep as other workers, which is seven to nine hours in a 24-hour cycle. If shift workers routinely have less sleep than they need, it can negatively impact upon health, wellbeing, job performance and safety.

Our message is clear: good sleep can still be possible!

What are the common sleep challenges that shift workers face?

Dr Junge: They can have less predictable routines and they’re often working at a time when they’re designed to be asleep.

The common challenges they face are: not getting the hours of sleep they need, difficulty with alertness and concentration, feeling dehydrated, feeling low in mood or isolated as well as having digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhoea or heartburn.

They’re also more likely to be overweight and more at risk of substance misuse – drinking more alcohol or relying on sleeping pills.

Given those risks, are there any steps they can take to protect themselves on the health front?

Dr Junge: Yes, a key aspect would be to understand the body clock and the effects of light on our sleep. We need dark conditions for sleeping and light in our eyes to maintain alertness.

It’s important to prioritise sleep by ensuring their sleeping environment is good, protecting themselves against daylight and noise.

I would also suggest experimenting with taking naps during the day – try napping at different times or lengths to see what might work. And pay close attention to diet and exercise.

Maintaining social connections as much as possible will help mentally with feeling happier and not so isolated.

How much sleep should they aim for?

Dr Junge: The same as other workers, seven to nine hours. I should add that anything between six and 10 hours is considered within normal limits.

Is it better to aim for one long sleep during the day or break it up into shorter sleeps?

Dr Junge: My advice is to aim for as much sleep as possible. Longer stints are preferable but supplement that with naps. All sleep – however you get it – is good sleep.

It’s also helpful to develop a ‘sleep schedule’ based on your work roster. This means doing similar things before and after a night shift and a day shift so your body can adapt easier. For example, after a night shift, try to always go to bed at 11 am.

Do you have any advice for handling the transition from night shifts to day or morning shifts?

Dr Junge: On your first day off from night shift, take a short nap in the morning and go to bed earlier than your usual time. Some sunlight after waking in the morning can help your body clock realign.

Remember, shift work is not an endurance challenge. It must be sandwiched between caring for your good health and earning a living. To be able to maintain periods of shift work, caring for your health and sleep needs must be a key consideration.

What are your top three sleep tips for shift workers?

Dr Junge:

Value and prioritise your sleep. Carve out time and space for sleep to give yourself the best chance of getting good rest.

Keep it consistent. Try to maintain a ‘sleep schedule’ for each of the different types of shifts you do, even when it’s a rotating roster.

Use tools but beware of traps. Caffeine and naps are very useful tools for alertness or rest. But too much caffeine or too much napping can backfire on you. Harness their potential to help you, not hinder you, in getting more sleep.

For more tips, visit Sleep Health Foundation’s fact sheet Healthy Sleep Practices for Shift Workers. Everyone is different so use these tips based on your work schedule and lifestyle.

Talk to your GP if you have any questions or concerns about your sleep and managing the effects of shift work. Sleep physicians and sleep psychologists can also help with tailored treatment.

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Words by Muriel Reddy.

Published September 2023

This article is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your medical practitioner.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australian Government.

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