The emergency room nurse ready for late-night mishaps, the security guard patrolling your office space, the baker preparing your morning bagel – what do these people have in common? They work while the rest of us sleep, and hopefully, they sleep while the rest of us are awake. But for some night shift workers, it's not that simple. As they fight against a natural sleep schedule, they often face two problems: staying alert at work in the nighttime, and sleeping well at home in the daytime.
It's common that shift workers simply don't get enough quality sleep. "They fall into a bucket of chronic sleep deprivation," says Tina Waters, a sleep specialist with the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center. "And based on the research we've found on this, it can cause irritability, excessive daytime sleepiness, and ultimately, can increase one's chances of cardiovascular problems, such as heart attacks, high blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmia."
And in the short term, sleep problems among shift workers can cause mishaps. That sleep-deprived ER nurse may give out the wrong dosage; the overnight baker may drive home from work feeling drowsy.
But there are 24 hours in a day, and we need overnight nurses and security guards and bakers. And chances are, they need the work. So for shift workers, or those considering working overnight schedules, take the following expert advice:
Stick to your schedule. Even on days you don't work, continue to stay awake at night and sleep during the day. It's hard work to reprogram your system to do the opposite of what it's supposed to, and flipping to a conventional schedule can "wreak havoc" on the progress you've made, Waters says. "Anytime you lose or break routine, you might be battling to retain it again." Be as consistent as possible with your sleep schedule by waking up and going to bed at the same times each day.
[Read: The Trouble With Sleep Texting.]
Perfect your sleep hygiene. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is one of the many aspects of proper sleep hygiene, which is especially important for night shift workers who are fighting their own natural rhythm for daytime zzz's. Boost your odds for a good day's worth of sleep. For starters, make your room dark and quiet, which may be tough during the daytime. Try soundproofing your room, investing in light-blocking shades and turning off your phone.
Consider "strategic use of caffeine," as Waters puts it, meaning that while a cup of coffee on the way to work might provide some much needed pep, consuming caffeine toward the end of your shift might leave you sleepless once you get home. Try to wean off caffeine as your shift comes to an end. Avoid alcohol, too, as a way to fall asleep. "Sometimes there's a tendency to use alcohol as a sedative, but it's not good for sleep maintenance," says Eric Olson, co-director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "As it metabolizes, it actually has a rebound effect and wakes you up."
Lighten up. Light sends signals to our brains to be alert, which is partly why we're naturally more awake in the bright daytime and more sleepy in the dark nighttime. So at work, when you're expected to be alert, "the more light exposure you can get, the better you are," Waters says. If possible, simply turn on the lights in your office, she says, or purchase a light box, which is a small, portable device that emits artificial light.
While light is your friend at work, it's your enemy after your shift, as you try to wind down for sleep. "When night shift workers drive home in the morning light, their brain is getting mixed signals," Olson says. "On one hand, they're tired, because they have been up all night, so they have that drive to sleep. But they're concurrently getting that alerting stimulant from the morning sun." The solution? Olson and Waters suggest wearing sunglasses during the morning commute home.
Nap strategically. Ideally, night shift workers can rack up all their sleep during one block of the day, but sometimes it just doesn't happen. A well-timed nap, say an hourlong doze right before work, can help them stay alert throughout their upcoming shift, Olson and Waters say.
See a doctor if you're struggling. If you're making errors at work, falling asleep on your commute, having trouble sleeping or feeling concerned about additional health ailments, such as high blood pressure or depression, check in with your health care provider. You and your primary care provider or sleep specialist may discuss alternative methods for easing night shift work, such as prescription medicines or melatonin supplements. He or she may also look for other sleep issues, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
Make it a family affair. As if reversing your sleep and wake schedule wasn't tough enough, night shift work can often put a on strain relationships and families. "How do you get there for your kids' games or performances or concerts when you should be sleeping or getting ready for work?" Olson asks. "Plus, if you're sleep deprived from this, you're probably in a crummy mood, so even if you're around, you may not be the person you or your family wants you to be, because you're bearing the brunt of poor quality sleep."
It's not just the person working the night shift who is affected by the unusual schedule, but often kids and partners as well.
Planning – and lots of it – is the best way for families to manage the effects of Mom or Dad working all night and sleeping all day, says David Kaplan, chief professional officer and past president of the American Counseling Association. First, plan to communicate. "We know that healthy families spend time talking to each other," Kaplan says, "but that can be very difficult when somebody's on the night shift. And it can be very easy for days and weeks go to by without talking to members of you family." Kaplan suggests families deliberately plan blocks of times to be in each other's company and talk.
Families also need to anticipate problems and plan ahead to solve them, Kaplan says. He suggests couples divvy up the responsibilities, such as cleaning the house, grocery shopping and taking kids to school. By mapping out these tasks in a more "equitable way," each person will share the weight, no matter which time of day he or she is working. Planning is also essential for physical and emotional intimacy, Kaplan says. Night shift workers can plan for and schedule moments of closeness with their kids, such as tucking them into bed, going to church as a family or assisting with homework. And Kaplan says couples with opposite sleep schedules should consider planning times to have sex.
"It's really the whole family on the night shift," he says.