Shift work can significantly disrupt our sleep cycle, but there are ways we can improve our sleep without the use of medication.

The impacts of shift work on sleep

Disturbed sleep is the most commonly reported health side effect of shift work. Shift workers are the highest risk population for sleep problems given they’re operating against environmental clues that reset our internal biological clocks on a daily basis. As such, it’s important for shift workers to pay attention to strategies that can help them improve their sleep. So, MyWorkplaceHealth has put together the best sleep tips for shift workers, as well as addressed using sleep medications when working shift work.

Sleep is a core physiological function and impacts so many important areas of our life: our energy, appetite, motivation, attention/concentration, how efficient we are at work, and even our mood – and the stakes are high if we leave chronic sleep issues unaddressed.

Can medications help?

Many people who struggle with disrupted and irregular sleep choose to take sleep medications as an ‘easy solution’. They can be luring, yet are highly addictive, and people often quickly develop tolerance toward them (requiring higher amounts of the medication to achieve beneficial results). Many individuals will also experience rebound insomnia, where sleep problems become worse after medication cessation.

Importantly, most sleep aids should only be taken for short windows of time such as five to 10 days.

Sleep Tips for Shift Workers: Improve sleep without medications

So, what are the best strategies to improve sleep without medication?

  1. Decrease exposure to light when attempting to sleep. Given the importance of light in impacting our sleep/wake cycle, it’s important to decrease exposure to light when shifts are complete and it’s time to sleep. This can be achieved with sunglasses and have black-out curtains.
  2. Increase light when it is time to work and be alert. 15 to 20 minutes of exposure to a lightbox can be of benefit.
  3. Develop a pre-bedtime ritual Chose something to help unwind from the shift (e.g., read the paper, take a warm bath).
  4. Restrict the bedroom environment for sleep only. Don’t watch TV or read in bed.
  5. Schedule short naps (30 to 45 minutes maximum) before evening shifts to increase alertness. If possible, see if your workplace will allow you to build in scheduled naps. Many employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of this.
  6. Have a discussion (if possible) with your manager about the frequency of shift rotations. Having less frequent shift rotations. For example, work a shift for two weeks rather than rotating to a different schedule every couple of days. This allows the body to gain some consistency in sleep patterns. Also, if possible, see if shifts can be sequenced in a clockwise fashion (day – evening – night) as this facilitates a more normal sleep pattern.

Final Thoughts

Behavioural strategies do work, but the key is this: You need to implement these strategies for several weeks or longer to experience the beneficial results. So don’t give up, and good luck!

After several weeks, if you- or your workers- are still struggling with sleep challenges it may be helpful to contact a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a proven and effective method for improving sleep. Contact Dr. Joti Samra & Associates for more information or to set up an appointment.