Sleeping Despite Shifting Work Schedules

Allen Blaivas, M.D. Health Pro
  • In our last blog we touched upon the problem of shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) and discussed some of the social and health-related issues that can occur. This time I would like to focus on techniques that may help those who have to work shifts deal with the demands of their jobs. Clearly, some of these suggestions will not be appropriate for everyone, but do your best to implement some small changes that might make a big difference in the way you feel, and remember to speak with your physician and care provider as to what is most appropriate for you.

    As we noted last time, despite the urge to play with your schedule on weekends or during short vacations it is best to avoid this. By trying to go back to a “normal” schedule during those periods, you will likely be tired and have decreased performance when returning to work. Also, sleep will be disrupted until you are again able to entrain you daily rhythm back to your previous schedule.
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    Intuitively, we probably believe that if someone works the same shift all the time, they will have an easier time adapting to the demands of the shift, even if it is at night. Surprisingly, research suggests that rotating shifts are actually better in terms of our getting used to the schedule. In addition, try as best as possible to limit the number of consecutive “off-hour” shifts and avoid working extended hours.

    Some coping strategies at work include:

    • Frequent naps during breaks to improve your alertness and energy. (Ironically the tragedy that led me to write about SWSD prompted the FAA to ban naps by air traffic controllers, which arguably will make matters worse, instead of better.)

    • Drink caffeinated beverages during work, but not within four hours of your intended sleep time.

    • When not napping during breaks, be active (take walks, do light exercise).

    • Don’t leave boring jobs for late in the shift, when tiredness is most pronounced.

    When leaving work and getting prepared for sleep:

    • Avoid bright sunlight, as this may disrupt your circadian rhythm and cause a delay in sleepiness. Wear sunglasses when outside and while driving.

    • Even though the urge to “get things done” will be there, because it is daytime and for so many people the day is just beginning, pass up the urge to get involved in stimulating activities.

    • Maintain normal bedtime rituals to let your body get the cue that it is time to start sleeping.

    • Maintain a good sleep environment. Make the bedroom dark, shut the phone, place a do not disturb sign on the front door, and let family and friends know that this is your protected time.

    • Avoid heavy foods, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol before sleep.

    For more information about this topic, check out the website of the National Sleep Foundation at
Published On: October 10, 2006