Better Sleep With Shift Work

by Eli Hendel, M.D. Medical Reviewer

It's important to understand your body’s internal clock and what symptoms can occur if work gets in the way. In this Q&A, one of HealthCentral's sleep experts, Dr. Eli Hendel, explains how to minimize the impact of shift work on your sleep habits.

Question 1

As a sometimes night shift worker, how can I maximize my work schedule but also limit symptoms?

Dr. Hendel says:

This is one situation where napping isn’t so bad. Try to take short naps shortly before your shift, as well as during the middle (even 20 minutes can help). All naps should not exceed 30-40 minutes, as it may lead to sleep inertia, and make it harder for the brain to get back on track. There should also be lots of light during the first half of your shift, with a gradual darkening toward the end to help prep for sleep.

Question 2

If I do regular shift work, what is the best way to catch up on sleep?

Dr. Hendel says:

While leaving work when it’s actually morning, wear sunglasses on the drive home to avoid daylight exposure. Your home should also be quiet and dark, and you should aim to go to sleep within the first hour after your shift ends. Problems occur when people decide to leave work and run errands first, especially when children are involved. Missing immediate sleep results in fragmented sleep which is not refreshing.

Question 3

Is there a golden standard for the perfect sleep schedule for shift workers like me?

Dr. Hendel says:

There's no one answer among experts since every person reacts differently to shift work. But most say regularity is key. Try to work five nights in a row if your shift is 8 hours, and four if they are 12-hour shifts. Also aim for two days off following each set of shifts, and avoid long commutes home if you can. Days off should include family time, and activity, but try sleep in the early evening hours, waking early the next day, with a short mid-day nap.

Question 4

If I have to do shift work, how can I start planning the best schedule to limit health and performance consequences?

Dr. Hendel says:

First create your ideal schedule using the tips in this guide, then look at the reality of your situation by keeping a sleep log for two weeks. This will help identify current patterns and show you where improvements can be made. Every person will require different adjustments depending on their health, family and social needs. If you continue to struggle or get stuck, work with a health professional.

Expert Tip:

Sleep hygiene is of the utmost importance, and understanding sleep hygiene can be incredibly helpful to those who work shifts. One golden rule: Your bed should be reserved for sex and sleep, no other activities should occur in bed or during bedtime.

Question 5

I am struggling with excessive sleepiness during my shift and I sometimes nod off. What’s going on and what should I do?

Dr. Hendel says:

Many shift employees do struggle with excessive sleepiness during work hours or on their days off, fighting to stay awake or nodding off for a brief time. These events may have serious consequences, such as accidents while driving or operating heavy equipment on the job. These reasons and more are why it’s so important to have regular sleep patterns and minimize sleep deficit.

Eli Hendel, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
Eli Hendel, M.D.

Eli Hendel, M.D., is a board-certified internist/pulmonary specialist with board certification in Sleep Medicine. An Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Keck-University of Southern California School of Medicine, and Qualified Medical Examiner for the State of California Department of Industrial Relations, his areas include asthma, COPD, sleep disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and occupational lung diseases. Favorite hobby? Playing jazz music.