Sleep well while shift working

Learn how shift work impacts sleep and what you can do to improve your sleep while shift working.
Published 28 June 2021 | Updated 28 June 2024

Why is sleep so important?

Did you know that night shift workers get on average 25-33% less sleep than regular nine-to-five workers? And they lose an average of 1.5 hours of sleep in every 24-hour period, meaning that over four days this is comparable to losing a whole night of sleep!

A lack of sleep can have negative effects on our health. It has been shown to promote weight gain, overeating and reduced physical activity, as well as increased feelings of stress, depression and irritability. It can also impair our cognitive function. This means our concentration, problem solving and decision-making skills may be reduced, impacting our ability to undertake work activities, as well as everyday life tasks.

It’s recommended that we obtain 7-9 hours of sleep each night for optimal health and functioning.

Shift work disorder

It’s estimated that 10-15% of shift workers experience shift work disorder. Shift work disorder is caused by a disruption to our internal body clocks – also known as our circadian rhythm – that arises as a result of working long hours and having a frequently changing schedule. It’s characterised by insomnia and feelings of extreme tiredness. Sufferers of shift work disorder commonly experience:

  • Shortened sleep
  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Constant fatigue and exhaustion

Why do shift workers struggle getting enough sleep?

It’s not surprising that poor sleep is the most frequently reported high-risk lifestyle behaviour among shift workers. Many shift workers have constantly changing work schedules making it difficult to establish and maintain a regular sleeping pattern. Other behaviours which may cause sleeping difficulties include:

  • High intake of caffeine and/or sugar to stay awake and alert on shifts.
  • Smoking. Similar to caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant which can keep you awake.
  • Eating close to bedtime and in particular, eating fatty or spicy foods.
  • Alcohol intake. It’s a common myth that alcohol assists sleep but rather it results in a more disruptive and reduced quality of sleep.
  • Attempting to sleep in a bright room or when there is lots of background noise. This is common amongst night shift workers trying to sleep during daylight hours.

10 sleep tips for shift workers

Here are 10 tips to help improve your sleep as a shift worker.

  • Engage in regular physical activity. Preferably be active every day and if not, on most days. The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend engaging in 150-300 minutes (2.5-5 hrs) of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes (1.25-2.5 hrs) of vigorous intensity physical activity a week.
  • Instead of reaching for caffeine or sugar, try choosing foods high in protein and fibre to power through a night shift. For example, 99% fat-free plain yoghurt with fruit or nuts.
  • Avoid eating large meals 2-3 hours before bed, particularly if they are spicy or high in fat.
  • Avoid behaviours like smoking and alcohol. In particular, before bedtime to try and enhance the quality of your sleep.
  • Try a relaxing activity before bed, such as reading a book, having a warm bath or shower, or drinking non-caffeinated tea such as camomile.
  • Try some light stretching or yoga prior to bedtime.
  • Listen to a calming meditation.
  • Limit exposure to bright light and electronic devices an hour before bed.
  • If trying to sleep during the day, use an eye mask to block out light, or invest in blackout blinds or curtains to reduce natural sunlight.
  • If stress and worries keep you awake, it may be helpful to relieve these by writing them down in a journal an hour before bedtime.