Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Dr. Justin Puder B.A, M.A, Ph.D
6 Ways To Take Care of Yourself While Working Night Shifts
Published Jul 13th, 2022 & updated on Jul 13th, 2022
Maybe you like working night shifts or maybe you dread them. Either way, if they’re part of your job, you need to get through them. And that’s where we come in!
We do have a whole article on fixing your sleep schedule but let’s dig into the night-shift specific stuff.
You’re probably well aware that your brain uses cues like light to know when to make melatonin! You’ve also likely heard that you should avoid screens and the sun…and that advice is gold. It will help you get that sweet, sweet REM sleep.
If you haven’t already done so, make your bedroom nice and dark with blackout curtains or by hanging a blanket over top of your curtains. If you feel physically tired and it’s pitch black in your room, your body won’t fight you on falling asleep, no matter what time of day it is.
It can also help to wear sunglasses on your commute home. Not only will you limit your exposure to the sunrise, but you’ll also look cool. So that’s two helpful tips for the price of one — you’re welcome! Let’s get into a few more tips.
1. Keep a Sleep Schedule
Set a schedule for sleeping, and keep to it, regardless of whether or not you’re working. Share that schedule with your roommate, partner, or family who will be in the same space as you during the day and designate a quiet area where everyone knows to stay quiet to allow you to sleep without interruptions. Keeping a regular sleep schedule can help your body by avoiding a painful adjustment between the days of the week when you’re working and your days off.
As far as how to transition from day shift to night shift (and vice versa), it’s a process of trial and error to find what works best for you. Maybe you stay up late the night before so you can sleep in and shift your sleep schedule by a few hours beforehand, or maybe you just take an afternoon nap a few hours before your first night shift on the rotation. There’s no one best-solution for shift workers; you know your body best, so do what feels right for you.
2. Create a Sleep Routine
It might sound like strange advice, but don’t go straight to bed when you get home. Allow yourself time to unwind your mind before you actually try to sleep. Instead of heading straight for your bed, take an epsom salt bath, listen to your favourite podcast or some chill music, call your mom for a little chat, and THEN get into bed. A sleep routine will not only help you get a sound sleep, but it’ll help reduce burnout by making it feel less like working + sleeping is all you do.
It’s so important to take care of yourself and get enough sleep. If your circadian rhythm gets messed up it can lead to all kinds of problems, including a chronic condition called Shift Work Sleep Disorder. It can present similar symptoms as sleep apnea and narcolepsy, so if you’re a night shift worker who has a bad relationship with sleep, talk to your doctor because SWSD is treatable. Somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of shift workers experience SWSD, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
3. Eat Well — and Regularly
Just like sleep — it’s important to keep your meals on a schedule too. Depending on your shift time, it can vary, but you’re going to want to eat your biggest meal of the day in the evening, a few hours before your shift. That, plus some light snacking on healthy foods during your shift, should keep you sustained. The idea is to avoid eating a big meal at 3 a.m., because your stomach bacteria are sleeping (lucky them!) and consistently eating while your body isn’t expecting it can cause issues like chronic gut issues or increase the risk of type two diabetes.
Then when you get home, have a light “breakfast” — something like yogurt or fruit. Nothing too big, though, because digestion can affect your ability to get REM sleep. Plus, if you have loved ones who aren’t on the same schedule, sharing a meal together can be a time to bond and get some quality time together before you hit the hay, and they start their day.
It should go without saying, but if you have a physical or mental health condition like diabetes or you’re recovering from an eating disorder where you need to eat more frequently, DO NOT skip out on that.
4. Don’t Overindulge on Coffee
For people worried about staying awake on the night shift, the temptation to CHUG coffee (or caffeinated pop/soda) all night long will be there. But like most things, moderation is key.
You’ll want to avoid drinking more than four cups of coffee in a 24 hour period. And that’s just in general, not specific to night shift workers. The side effects of too much caffeine can include anxiety, insomnia, dehydration, and heart palpitations. Sooooo yeah coffee is pretty great but it’s not always the answer.
A good alternative is drinking water. Water keeps you hydrated; dehydration can cause things like lethargy and headaches, and those would NOT help you working night shifts. Make your reusable water bottle your new best friend and keep it by your side. And if water starts to get boring, you can try sprucing it up a bit by adding some lemon or mint for a little extra flavour. Or make tea!
Some night shift workers swear by “the coffee nap.” When your break starts, you drink coffee and then try to take a quick 15-minute nap immediately after. That’s about how long it takes for caffeine to start affecting your body, so you’re getting a double-boost of sleep and caffeine in the middle of your shift. Of course, this only works if you have access to a break room couch or something else, and if you have the willpower to actually limit your nap to 15 minutes.
However, you should avoid drinking coffee too close to bedtime. Experts generally say to avoid caffeine for six hours before you’re going to bed. So plan accordingly, because there’s few things worse than lying in bed, exhausted, but unable to sleep because you just haaad to have that last cuppa coffee.
5. Keep Moving
Any kind of stimulation, either through physical activity or a conversation, will keep you alert. Going for a short walk gets the blood flowing and keeps you from getting sleepy. It can also help to talk with your coworkers—either about your job or just chit-chat.
Also, as tempting as it might be to skip out on physical activity when you’re not at work, doing some kind of movement at least a few times a week has health and mental benefits. We’re not about that toxic fitness culture (body diversity and body acceptance is more our vibe), so we’re talking about moving in a way that makes you happy and excited to come back to that activity whenever you want a little boost!
While it’s supes unlikely that you’ll feel like doing anything active after work, that’s actually a good thing. Like we said two paragraphs ago, activity wakes you up… so while it’s a good thing to do in the middle of your shift to perk yourself up, it’s not the best idea right before bed. Instead, try going for a walk or doing some other kind of activity when you wake up in the evening, with a big smile on [your] face — oh darn did we start singing All-American Rejects again?? Sorry about that…
6. Take Care of Your Mental Health
It can be pretty easy to dwell on the fact that you’re at work in the middle of the freaking night, but don’t forget about the benefits. Depending on what you value in a job, working night shifts can actually be nicer.
Working during non-peak hours can also sometimes mean a less stressful shift. Night shifts have less public interaction and more of a focus on sustaining momentum and maintaining progress from day-to-day. To be clear, we’re not saying night shifts are easy or diminishing the work in any way. Imagine a world where all the nurses, firefighters, security guards, and air traffic controllers clocked out at 5 p.m.—yikes!!
Working nights or weekends might not be everyone’s first choice, but that can create a sort of bond between you and your coworkers. You might even start each shift singing “We’re All In this Together” from High School Musical! No? Yeah totally us neither.
Night shift depression is real. It can feel like you have seasonal depression year-round when you don’t see the sun enough. Whether it’s by talking with loved ones or coworkers, light therapy, antidepressants, or seeing a therapist, don’t neglect your mental health. Remember to take care of yourself — because you’re worth taking care of.