How to get the sleep you need during shift work: Tips for Service Members and their partners

Shift work is one of many challenges that can keep you from getting the sleep you need to perform across all domains of Total Force Fitness (TFF). Sleeping when the rest of the world is awake and active can be difficult. Shift work can also affect your spouse’s or partner’s health and wellness, since they’ll likely carry extra responsibilities during this time and might also struggle to get the rest they need. Lack of sleep can hurt communication between couples and increase relationship conflict too.

Learn tips to optimize your relationship fitness and sleep readiness during shift work, and make sure you and your partner get the sleep you need.

Tips for Service Members

Plan smart. When you’re on shift work, planning is key.

  • Once you know your schedule, consider your family and your social demands, and choose a time when you can get consolidated sleep. Try to get as much sleep as possible in a single period. If that’s not possible, sleep as long as you can at the time when it’s easiest for you to fall asleep, then get extra sleep through naps.
  • After you find a schedule that works for you, keep it as consistent as possible. Try to sleep, eat, and be active at the same time every day for the term of your shift work.
  • Plan for a short nap as close as possible to the start of the shift to help you stay alert during work hours.

Optimize your environment. A comfortable environment that promotes sleep can improve your sleep quality and duration.

  • Adjust light exposure. Consider using eye masks or blackout curtains to get more restful sleep.
  • Minimize noise disturbances. A set of comfortable earplugs can help block environmental noises. Another option is to use a white noise machine or background music (playing from a small speaker and not from earbuds or headphones) to mask disruptive noises.
  • Consider turning down the thermostat. Sleep experts recommend making your sleep environment a few degrees cooler than what feels comfortable when you’re awake.

Be mindful of your partner’s sleep needs. A well-rested spouse or partner will be better able to support you and your family during your assigned shift work. They might be carrying an extra workload during the day to support your work and sleep schedule.

Shift work comes in all forms, which means you might get home and try to fall asleep in the middle of your partner’s sleep. If you share the same room, consider the following:

  • Be mindful of the noise you make if your partner is asleep when you get home. Move quietly and considerately to avoid waking them up.
  • Use a dim flashlight instead of overhead lights to illuminate your space.
  • Be aware of how much light phones and laptops put out. If you must use those devices, go to a different room.

Tips for partners

Be supportive. Service Members on shift work often have trouble getting all the sleep they need during the day, even when they’re tired from working at night. Support your spouse or partner by acknowledging the unique demands of shift work and making a few changes.

  • Plan household chores and responsibilities around your partner’s sleep time. Even activities that don't seem too noisy, like unloading the dishwasher, can be disturbing, especially in a small house.
  • If children are part of the picture, consider leaving the house with them (even if for a short period) while your spouse or partner is trying to sleep.
  • Consider overall noise levels in the house when your partner is trying to sleep.

Be smart with the use of alarm clocks. Loud alarm clocks can be disruptive to those trying to stay asleep.

  • Consider using a gentle approach to alarm clocks, such as a vibrating wristwatch or a lamp that automatically turns on or off at a particular time.
  • Regardless of your alarm clock choice, avoid using the snooze button. Get up when the alarm first goes off.

Tips for both

Communicate effectively. Open and honest conversations with your spouse or partner can make periods of shift work easier for both of you.

  • Discuss the ideal sleep schedule for the Service Member on shift work and make sure you’re both on the same page about it.
  • Consider the pros and cons of sleeping in shared or separate rooms.
  • Discuss the distribution of household responsibilities during this period. Address involvement in family life, especially if children are part of the picture.
  • Try to see your partner’s perspective during your conversations. Recognizing your partner’s situation during their shift can help you acknowledge each other’s unique perspective and respond with understanding and empathy.

Invest in your TFF. Learn other evidence-based tips to optimize your sleep readiness and social fitness.

  • Explore the benefits of getting enough sleep on your health, wellness, and performance. Being aware of the costs of sleep deprivation can boost your motivation to make sleep a priority.
  • Build habits to support sleep quality and duration while on regular daytime schedules.
  • Prioritize your relationship. Your time together as a couple may be limited during shift work, so be sure to find times to connect as a couple to increase and maintain relationship satisfaction. During those times of connection, support one another and respond to your partner’s needs.
  • Make time to resolve conflicts. Find a time when you’re both well-rested and have enough time to discuss things. Be sure to schedule a time that won’t be rushed or interrupted by the start of a shift or other scheduled event, like daycare drop-off. Sleep deprivation can increase relationship conflicts, so it may be wise to delay talking about any issues until you’re both on a regular schedule. Just don’t delay conflict indefinitely if you won’t be on the same schedule anytime soon.

Make a plan, but be flexible too. Acknowledge the impact of shift work and sleep deprivation on your relationship and set a contingency plan for how to handle any issues that might come up. Observe how the initial plan is working for you and your partner and make changes as needed.

  • Set a trial period—for a few days to a week—to adjust to new sleep schedules, sleeping arrangements, and changes to the way you both handle household and family responsibilities. Notice any areas with room for improvement. Then, reassess your plan at the end of the trial period and make changes as needed.
  • Keep the conversation open and communicate with your spouse or partner if something isn’t working for you. Even if you and your partner try to be very thorough when setting up the initial plan, it's possible you might have left a few factors out of the equation.

Getting the sleep you and your partner need during shift work requires intentional planning and open communication. Couples who plan together and support each other's needs have a better chance of optimizing their sleep readiness despite the challenges of shift work.

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