If your work schedule varies from the “usual” 9-to-5—whether that means rotating, evening, or night shifts—your job may be taking a physical toll. Especially if you’ve switched from full-time daytime work to shift work, your body may have trouble adjusting to a new rhythm. You may also find it difficult to adjust your non-work life around your new schedule.
Shift work comes with unique stressors, so take these five steps to take care of your body and mind.
1. Find your rhythm
Irregular hours can throw your sleep schedule off balance—particularly if you’re sleeping during the day and working at night. About 10% of night and rotating shift workers have shift work sleep disorder, which shows up as "insomnia or excessive sleepiness." If this condition isn’t managed, it can lead to poorer overall health and subpar work performance as you accumulate a "sleep debt."
Working at night disrupts your body’s circadian rhythm—a biological clock that energizes you during the daylight and winds you down when the sun sets. As a result, you’ll have to coach your body to stay awake when working night shifts:
- Keep your work area well lit. Circadian rhythms are controlled by a light-sensitive part of the brain. If you’re surrounded by bright light you can trick your internal clock into staying alert. Lamps or light boxes might do the trick.
- Take short exercise breaks if possible. Try taking short walks around the office on your break.
- Nap before your shift. If you can squeeze in a nap during the shift, a brief snooze for 15 or 20 minutes can give you a boost.
- Stay social. Chat or collaborate with others who are working at the same time.
- Sleepiness tends to hit night shift workers hardest around 4 or 5 a.m. Plan to get your most boring tasks done before then if you can.
- Moderate your caffeine intake. Sip your caffeinated beverage of choice at the beginning of a shift, but avoid caffeine as the shift goes on. You’ll want to be able to sleep afterward.
2. Get your Z's
Once you get home from work, you’ll need to overcome your natural rhythm and get into rest mode—even if the sun is shining outside.
- Keep your sleeping space quiet and dark. Consider investing in light-blocking shades, heavy curtains, an eye mask, and earplugs.
- Wear dark sunglasses during the morning commute home. Light makes you alert, and the sun may send your body signals to stay awake.
- Turn off your phone. Let people know you won’t be available during the day.
- Resist the urge to run errands on the way home. The sooner you wind down, the better.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcoholic beverages may disturb your ability to sleep well.
3. Watch what you eat
Irregular or delayed meal times can impact your overall health, including your blood glucose levels. You might not think about packing lunch for night and evening shifts because your body clock isn’t telling you it’s lunchtime. But snacks from the break room or vending machine—or skipping food altogether—won’t give you the energy you need.
Plan ahead by prepping food from home before you go to work. Assume you’ll need to eat at least once during an eight-hour shift. And it doesn’t hurt to bring a healthy snack for shorter shifts either. Many people get around the time crunch by buying protein-packed snacks in bulk (so you can grab something quickly on the way out the door) or freezing and reheating leftovers.
Don’t forget to drink your water, since hydrated brains are more likely to stay awake.
4. Look out for your well-being
Because circadian rhythms also regulate chemicals that affect mood, night and rotating shift workers can be at increased risk for depression.
Do all you can to take care of yourself. Take each break you get—avoid the temptation to work straight through a meal or break time. And if you find yourself working regular night shifts, get into the pattern of sleeping during the day, even on your days off. A rhythm will feel more natural than an unpredictable schedule to your body.
Build in a little exercise whenever you can, starting with some stretches or a walk around the block. Exercise is a tried-and-true mood lifter.
But sometimes DIY self-care isn’t enough. When you’re regularly struggling to keep your eyes open, dreading your next shift, or falling asleep on the job, it’s probably time to see a doctor. Your workplace might offer a free health assessment for night workers.
Though sometimes it’s unavoidable, too many night shifts in a row may not be best for your overall health. Talk to your supervisor and see what other scheduling options are possible if you find yourself stuck in this pattern.
5. Stay social
Another unpleasant side effect of shift work is the difficulty of seeing family and friends. You’re asleep when they’re awake and busy when they’re free.
Communication and planning can keep you connected to the wider world. Once you get your schedule, see what times might work for a catch-up session, a meal, or a cup of coffee with a friend. If you’re sharing household responsibilities with a roommate or significant other, keep them in the loop about your work hours and the chores you can complete. Couples with opposite sleep schedules can plan an hour or two to spend time together when you’re both alert.
When you do get the chance to see friends, keep outings low-key and fun. You might have limited time and energy, but it’s important for your overall health to be around people who enrich your life. Regular electronic communication—a group chat, text, or email—can foster connection and intimacy when you’re too drained to see people in person.
It’s tough to manage an unusual schedule, so give yourself a pat on the back for doing the hard work, and focus on the self-care you deserve.
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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.