There are more than 15 million people in the US1 and 12 million people in the UK2 who work night shifts. They work in sectors that need to provide undisrupted services, such as healthcare, hospitality, transport, manufacturing, and more. Unlike those with traditional work hours, they work when most people are asleep, between 11 pm and 6 am, and consequently face a number of unique challenges to their daily routine.
One such challenge is tiredness. Working in the night is disruptive to the normal circadian rhythm – which is a part of the body’s internal body clock and crucial to sleep patterns3 – and can cause sleep loss and fatigue, which in turn impacts performance and increases the risk of accidents4. Studies show that night shift workers are at high risk of ‘drowsy driving’, where their tiredness impedes their physical and mental responses, leading to crashes and injuries5.
If you’re a night shift worker, you may well be wondering what you can do to stay awake at work while also juggling the demands of your personal life. In this article, we briefly explore what options are available to you to help you stay awake at work without compromising on your sleep and health.
What are the risks associated with night shift work?
According to the CDC, in addition to fatigue and sleep loss, there are a number of health-related risks associated with night shift work6. These include:
- Sleep disorders
- Heart disease
- Metabolic disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
- Reproductive issues
- Digestive problems
- Stress and depression
Furthermore, in recent years, the IARC or International Agency for Research on Cancer classified night shift work as “probably carcinogenic to humans”7. Bearing the above in mind can help inform your approach to staying awake during night shift work and minimise risks.
Tips to stay awake during night shifts
If you’re struggling to stay awake while working at night, then it’s worth focusing on the root of the problem – sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults should get 7 to 8 hours per day of good sleep8, and the tips below are aligned with helping you do that while navigating the demands of night shift work.
#1. Create an ideal sleeping environment
The duration and quality of your sleep is affected by environmental factors such as light and sound9. If you’re trying to sleep in the daytime, you’re at greater risk of being disturbed by these factors for natural and social reasons. It’s therefore worth creating an ideal sleep environment at home. Try using:
Black-out curtains or an eye mask to prevent sunlight from keeping you awake.
Earplugs or a white noise machine to prevent the sounds of traffic, construction, people outside, etc. from disturbing you.
A light alarm to replicate the effects of sunlight and gently wake you up from sleep.
It may also be beneficial to set up dedicated times for receiving delivery parcels, outside the times when you’ll be asleep. If you have children, ask friends and family to help watch and entertain them while you sleep. And don’t forget your smartphone - try putting your phone on airplane mode when you sleep to prevent being woken up by notifications.
If you’re looking for more tips on how to create an ideal sleeping environment, then read our comprehensive guide on how to sleep well.
#2. Follow a sleep schedule
Public health agencies like the CDC advocate following a sleep schedule to help improve your sleep10. However, considering a night shift typically entails a radical departure from conventional work and social routines, you may find your schedules thrown into disarray. It’s important to try to adjust your sleep schedule gradually – research has consistently found that too many changes, done too fast, often yields negative rather than positive consequences11.
Try to create and follow a new sleep schedule by doing the following:
- In increments of 30 to 45 minutes, gradually change your sleep and wake times.
- Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
- Aim to have allocated hours for shopping, socialising, and running personal errands that don’t overlap with your sleep schedule.
The above may be difficult to implement for those working random rotating shifts. In those instances, it may be best to speak with your manager about trying to develop a more consistent schedule that would benefit everyone.
#3. Create a stimulating workplace environment
There’s a lot of interesting research into how light affects sleep, and some studies suggest exposure to bright lights at work can help you better adjust to new work and sleep routines12.
If you find the nature of your night shift work involves lulls or slow periods, consider bringing with you books, puzzles, or anything that will help you stay engaged and awake. Alternatively, you could exercise during your break, as daily exercise can help you fall asleep better13.
#4. Avoid too many caffeinated drinks and eat healthy
Night shift workers often reach for coffee or energy drinks to stay awake and alert at work. That’s because they contain caffeine, a natural stimulant14. Caffeine can wake you up, as well as improve focus and performance. However, when taken in excess, it can increase your heart rate and make it difficult to concentrate15. What’s more, it can impact your ability to fall asleep16.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration or FDA, the recommended limit for caffeine in a day is 400 mg, which is approximately 4 cups of coffee17. Caffeine can stay in your body for 3 to 5 hours, reaching its peak level at around the hour mark18. You therefore want to consume less than 400 mg per day, and avoid consuming caffeine towards the end of your shift or close to when you plan to sleep.
Night shift workers are also more likely to experience gastrointestinal problems than day shift workers, with symptoms including gas, diarrhoea, constipation, indigestion, and heartburn19. While it may be difficult to follow a balanced diet, it is recommended. Try to avoid snacking on greasy food or eating out too often, and instead drink plenty of water, eat healthy snacks, and eat healthy meals at fixed times.
#5. Have a short nap
This may not be possible for some night shift workers, depending on both the demands of the sector they work in and the nature of their workplace. However, there are plenty of benefits to trying to have a short nap that’s between 10 and 20 minutes long during a break. Sleep studies have found that a 10-minute nap in the afternoon brings with it a number of benefits, including reductions in sleepiness and fatigue, and improvements in energy, enthusiasm and cognitive performance20.
Bonus: Try B・SYNC ON
B・SYNC ON is the world’s first clinically proven wake-up supplement21. It’s meant to be taken before you sleep, or 7 hours before you intend to wake up, and is designed to help you wake up with ease, feeling refreshed and alert.
It contains four ingredients – caffeine, vitamin B5, vitamin B12, and zinc – that combine to reduce feelings of fatigue and improve your concentration and performance. Its innovative delayed-release capsule means that these core ingredients will only be released into your bloodstream after 7 hours. It’s safe, non-addictive, and has no side effects, and is ideal for night shift workers. (That being said, it isn’t suitable for children, pregnant women, or people with a hypersensitivity towards caffeine.)
Things to remember
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to staying awake during night shift work. Hopefully the above tips will prove helpful to you. If you find you’re experiencing excessive sleepiness but are unable to sleep, then visit your GP. Lastly, be mindful of the laws surrounding night shift work, and make sure you are not working more hours in the nighttime than you should.