Shift Work: How to Handle Sleep, Life

Got odd hours at work? Learn how to make your schedule work for you.

From the WebMD Archives


Handling Odd Working Hours

O’Connell and Brewster are night people. And night owls, Ibrahim says, thrive on the graveyard shift. For everyone else, it helps to have a few strategies to make working those odd hours easier. Here are five to try:

Shift Slowly: Any changes to your circadian rhythm should be made gradually, Ibrahim says. It takes at least two days – and perhaps as much as a week – to adjust to a major shift in schedule. Make sure your boss knows this. Ideally, Ibrahim says, your boss will give you two or more days to ease into your new hours. O’Connell says: "The human body doesn’t adapt to going back and forth" between schedules.

Resist Caffeine: The quick boost caffeine gives you is likely to raise your sleep deficit. Shift workers who rely on caffeine have more trouble getting to sleep after work, Ibrahim says. Brewster says she sticks with milk and water, and she sleeps just fine.

The Home Front: Your home life makes a huge difference when it comes to getting enough sleep. You need the support of those you live with, so that you can successfully manage kids, bills, and other priorities – not to mention having quality family time – without being robbed of rest. "Domestic factors can have a strong impact on coping with shift work," Ibrahim says.

Practice Makes Perfect: "You have to be smart about the amount of sleep you get," O’Connell says. "Sleep is a skill, and you have to be really savvy about where and how you sleep." Have a planned sleep period, and a very dark and quiet room at your disposal.

Get It in Writing: If the graveyard shift is causing you real problems, ask your doctor to write to your employer and explain your situation. "We’ve written to employers requesting shift changes for patients having significant problems," Ibrahim says. "The response has been very good." In some cases, a schedule change may be in everyone’s best interest. "I recently had a patient with narcolepsy," Ibrahim says. "I said, 'You can’t work nights in a hospital,' and we were able to shift his schedule."