Shifts happen: Managing your sleep with irregular work schedules

You’ve probably heard it all: Keep a regular sleep schedule, make sure you get 7–8 hours of sleep each night, and don’t consume too much caffeine. This “sleep advice” is probably really helpful for someone who works a regular 9–5 job. But what if you’re one of the nearly 20% of workers—such as first responders, medical professionals, or operational and tactical personnel—who work long, irregular, or night shifts? You might wonder how these tips might be relevant when many of these suggested strategies simply aren’t possible.

Shift work is a necessary part of providing continuing mission coverage across our military, as well as a reality for support staff and healthcare providers on whom Service Members and their families depend. However, shift work can impact your health through disruptions in circadian rhythm (which regulates sleep and wakefulness), psychological issues such as depression, and increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and obesity. Shift work also can impact the quality of your relationships, well-being, engagement, and performance.

Fortunately, many organizations provide helpful information and guidance on how to better manage your energy levels with your work and sleep schedules. Here are a few steps you might take to better understand your sleep patterns and some resources to help you learn more.

  • Understand the impact of shift work on sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a useful overview of research that examines the impact of shift work on sleep. Keep in mind you aren’t alone, and you can learn how to communicate with your healthcare provider about any issues you might experience. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides additional resources, including publications and webinars, that explore the impact of shift work on performance.
  • Track your sleep habits. If possible, download HPRC’s “Sleep Diary” and start tracking your sleep for up to 2 weeks. You also can assess how other factors such as caffeine intake and exercise impact your quality of sleep. These same factors impact your wakefulness throughout the day too, so it’s important to plan when and how much caffeine to consume or when to take naps to manage fatigue. If you seek the advice of a doctor or sleep specialist, you can bring the sleep log with you to provide more details about your sleep patterns, as well as strategies you’ve already tried.
  • Learn to manage fatigue. HPRC’s Sleep and Stress section provides helpful articles and links to resources that include strategies for better sleep. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA’s) Sleep Disorders Center also offers guidance on ways to improve your sleep and manage fatigue. You also can read “The night shift: Follow the evidence to survive and thrive” to learn how to minimize the negative impact of shift work.

Bottom line

Managing good sleep hygiene and preventing sleep-related performance deficits can be challenging when you’re working shifts. Ultimately, shift work impacts each person differently, and something that works for one person might not work for someone else. You might have to spend a few weeks trying out (and closely tracking) different strategies to see which ones are most effective in minimizing performance deficits. If these measures bring little or no relief, ask your primary care provider for a referral to a sleep expert or sleep study that takes a deeper look at your sleep patterns.

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