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How to Manage Shift Worker Fatigue Without Coming Off Shift

Night shift worker showing signs of fatigue

The biggest complaints about shift work can almost always be traced back to disrupted sleep patterns. While it can be nice to have extra days off due to working longer shifts (and the pay is often better to work those shifts), the pros don’t always outweigh the cons. In addition to issues with fatigue, shift work has also been linked to adverse health effects.

Irregular schedules like the ones shift workers encounter (night, evening shift, early morning, or rotating shift) can upset the body’s internal clock. Consecutive sleep is required for the body to function normally and irregular schedules often disrupt a normal sleeping pattern. This is attributed to what is called the circadian rhythm disorder (sleep-wake cycle disorder)—essentially your body tries to align with cues from the environment like when it’s light or dark outside, making it difficult to sleep.

According to the CDC, “Being awake for at least 24 hours is equal to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10%. This is higher than the legal limit (0.08% BAC) in all states.” So, it’s not just about feeling tired, because you’re actually impaired. Fatigue affects mental alertness and physical reaction time, ultimately impacting safety and productivity in the workplace.

The other problem with fatigue is that people think they can control it or overpower it. Here’s a quick reminder: people who fall asleep at the wheel did not set out to have a quick nap while driving.

To combat the fatigue that comes with shift work, all you need is S.L.E.E.P.—a slightly altered version of the acronym used in our handout Dead Tired: A Guide on How to Help Your Family Stay Alert. These tips can be passed along to anyone who has an irregular schedule.

Set a sleep schedule

Most adults need 7–8 hours of sleep a day. In order to establish an effective sleep schedule, ideally you should go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including weekends, to reinforce your sleep-wake cycle. It’s especially important for people who consistently work the night shift to maintain the same sleep schedule (where possible) when they’re off as while they’re working. Develop a pre-bedtime routine doing the same things every time before going to bed: brushing your teeth, reading a book, meditating—as doing the same routine before bed will trigger your body to know that it’s bedtime.

When coming off the night shift to switch over to days, it’s recommended to have a short sleep upon arrival home after shift (just a few hours) and then go to bed earlier that night so that waking in the morning isn’t troublesome. A sleep schedule is vital to ensure a consistent sleeping pattern. Daytime sleep is usually a lighter sleep, shorter duration, and poorer quality than nighttime sleep. It’s also disturbed more frequently because of daylight, warmer temperatures, and daytime noise. This is an important factor to keep in mind when setting a schedule and finding ways to sleep at the intended times without disrupting the sleep-wake cycle.

Limit sleep deterrents

Blue light (phone, TV, computer, etc.) should be avoided before sleeping because blue light blocks melatonin—the hormone the brain produces in response to darkness for sleep. If you’re coming off a night shift and going out into the daylight, it’s a good idea to have blue light-blocking glasses so that you won’t get that burst of energy that comes from the sunlight. You also need to set your bedroom up with blackout curtains to ensure it’s dark, especially when you need to sleep during the day. Where it’s not possible to change the curtains, try a sleep mask for direct coverage of your eyes.

Another big thing that keeps you awake ties into the next category: food and drink. Coffee is an obvious no-no for most people, but people often don’t think about the caffeine in foods like chocolate or mocha flavoring that could also keep them up at night. Nicotine is also a stimulant, and when used within four hours of bedtime it has been known to disrupt sleep quality and waken people throughout the night.

Eat accordingly

The food you eat throughout the day can greatly impact your energy levels. Did you know that caffeine can stay in your bloodstream for up to 8 hours? And even though an energy drink only takes 10 minutes for the caffeine to enter your bloodstream, it can take up to 12 hours for it to fully leave the bloodstream. When planning your meals, avoid drinking soda, energy drinks, and coffee at dinner (or at least seven hours before bed). It’s also important not to eat a heavy, greasy or sugary meal/snack late in the evening because it will leave you feeling uncomfortable and could cause tossing and turning throughout the night.

There are also foods you can eat right before bed to help improve your sleep quality.

  1. Have you ever heard of having a glass of warm milk to help aid sleepiness? Well, there’s a reason for that—milk contains sleep-promoting nutrients like tryptophan (yes, the same thing in turkey we blame for our sleepiness on Thanksgiving), magnesium (helps the body relax), and melatonin (influences sleep-wake cycle). It can also become a comfort “food” if used often enough.
  2. Almonds are a good source of melatonin—they also contain magnesium, which will help relax muscles and improve sleep quality (especially for people with insomnia). Plus, if you forget to incorporate them throughout the day, no sweat because they’re effective right before bed (they contain an amino acid known as tryptophan). Just a handful of almonds can be enough to do the trick. Walnuts are another great source of melatonin and healthy fats that you could consume right before bed.
  3. Bananas are a great snack that you can have right before bed to help induce sleep. Bananas are high in protein, magnesium, and vitamin B6, which work together to produce melatonin and serotonin. They are also high in potassium, which lowers blood pressure.
  4. Chamomile tea is known as a sleepy-time tea because of the flower of the chamomile plant’s sedative qualities. It’s one of the oldest medicinal herbs that have historically been used for insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, and inflammation/muscle spasms.

According to the Sleep Foundation, moderate-to-vigorous exercise can increase sleep quality by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep. Experts aren’t exactly sure what it is about exercise that improves sleep but they are sure the two are related. Getting into the habit of 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day will translate to better sleep quality at night. One of the best exercises to improve sleep is—unsurprisingly—yoga. Yoga is a slow-tempo, stress-relieving activity that can be performed right before bed to lower your blood pressure and heart rate and to create a state of deep relaxation directly related to not only falling asleep but staying asleep.   

Plan for wakefulness

In order to stay alert at work, you need to plan ahead to combat the dips in wakefulness. Drinking water will help fight dehydration, which is associated with feeling tired. The 30–30 rule for stretching is a good one; stretch for 30 seconds for every 30 minutes of work. But this is only a minimum. Take longer stretch breaks or plan your day to incorporate a quick walk. Doing things to increase the blood flow to your brain like stretching or walking will help you to feel more awake, and could reduce the risk of sprains and strains too.

Another great way to recharge your brain is to talk to co-workers. Or if there isn’t anyone you can talk to, turn on the radio. The host’s chatter could engage your brain or you could find a song to sing along to and get the boost you need. Frequent breaks and switching the tasks you’re doing regularly on those breaks will help you feel more alive.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list nor should it take precedence over what is recommended by a medical professional. With that said, these steps have worked for many people who work on an irregular schedule and who have had to deal with adapting their sleep patterns. For more great free resources on managing fatigue, check out,

On-demand webinar

Dead Tired: What Every Company Must Know About Fatigue

Fatigue is one of the most significant issues that companies face in every industry, as it affects safety, quality and productivity. Workers aren’t just tired—they’re dangerously impaired. This presentation will help you develop a plan to manage fatigue both corporately and individually.

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