Sleep Awareness Week 2024: practical strategies for shift workers

Are you getting enough quality shuteye as a shift worker? What works for you, and what doesn’t? Is it time to try something new?

Sleep Awareness Week runs 10-16 March and is a time to reemphasise the importance of sleep on your health and wellbeing.

Sleep researcher, Alexandra Shriane, a former paramedic and shift worker, says much available guidance on sleep is geared towards those who work regular day hours.

The CQUniversity PhD candidate led the research on the development of world consensus sleep guidelines specifically tailored for shift workers, including midwives and nurses, released last year.

Published in academic journal SLEEP, the Healthy Sleep Practices for Shift Workers research paper outlined 18 clear guidelines to ensure healthy sleep patterns, whether on permanent night shift or a rotating roster.

The guidelines are designed to provide shift workers with advice on healthy sleep practices, which can improve sleep during rostered periods of work.

“Until now, there has been inconsistent advice to help shift workers sleep, and many shift workers try to adapt standard advice to their non-standard sleep/wake patterns,” says Ms Shriane.

“It’s one of those things that’s outside the control of shift workers. But you can implement half a dozen strategies that help to reduce the burden of fatigue from shift work.”

The guidelines are based on scientific evidence and offer strategies that will work for most people, says Ms Shriane.

“We need to have strategies so that we don’t just soldier on, so that we can be a safe practitioner. Everyone is different, and we hope the guidelines adapt around workers’ different shift schedules, lifestyles, and commitments.”

The guidelines are particularly pertinent for students, and early career nurses and midwives who haven’t yet adapted to shift work and strategies for sleep, Ms Shriane says.

Some useful tips among the 18 guidelines include:

Develop a sleep schedule Your sleep schedule should be based on your roster and lifestyle. Try to maintain a similar sleep schedule for each shift type (e.g. Bedtime A for day shifts, Bedtime B for afternoon shifts, etc.), remembering to allow a sufficient opportunity for sleep (i.e. 7–9 hours total over 24 hours).

Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep per 24 hours Your individual sleep needs may differ, but research shows that 7–9 hours is the amount of sleep most healthy adults require. This may be achieved as one single sleep period, or as a main sleep supplemented by a shorter sleep(s). Keep in mind that this is total time spent asleep, not just time in bed.

Consider sleep inertia After waking, shift workers may experience sleep inertia – a period of grogginess, where alertness and performance are impaired. This feeling typically lasts 15–30 minutes after waking but can last up to 2 hours. It is important to avoid high-risk tasks (e.g. driving, operating machinery) during this time.

Caffeine intake Caffeine can help to improve alertness and performance before and during your shift. However, the effects of caffeine can last for several hours, often longer than you think, and vary greatly between people. Keep in mind that caffeine too close to your bedtime may impact your sleep.

Nicotine consumption Avoid nicotine entirely, or limit nicotine intake in the 6 hours before bed.

Plan your transition to days off When transitioning to a block of days off, particularly after working late/night shifts, one strategy that may work for you is to have a short sleep in the morning and go back to bed earlier than your usual bedtime. Some sunlight after waking in the morning can help your body clock realign to the day-night cycle.

If you have any concerns or queries about your sleep or managing the effects of shift work, it’s important to seek advice from a health professional. Your general practitioner/primary care provider is a good place to start, while sleep physicians and sleep psychologists can help with tailored treatments.

Access the paper and the full 18 sleep guidelines here

To learn more about Sleep Awareness Week, visit the National Sleep Foundation

7 Responses

  1. Rotating rosters mean you can work three different shifts in three days. Could be an afternoon then a morning then a night. This is not possible to have a suitable pattern. Unfortunately this is nursing and having done it for 52 years off and on, I see no way around it. More important would be to tell new and young nurses that it’s something you can’t worry yourself to death about. More realistic is acceptance and calm. Learn some relaxation techniques, some yogic breathing methods and just get on with it. If you can’t deal with it, then the alternative would be to negotiate your way around the rotating rostering with requests.

  2. Shift workers also die 10 -15 years earlier. Add that to a kick in the teeth from Government refusing Nurses a fair wage…

  3. It’s great that there is more focus on this. But, I’m quite sure the problem isn’t with the staff themselves not doing enough to get sufficient sleep and more of a horrendous rostering system that takes none of the above into account.

    If you are on a late/early, firstly you are already not going to get enough time between shifts to get the recommend sleep and if you do suffer from sleep inertia you need to wake up 1hr earlier.

    The system is super broken!

  4. The amount of sleep a shift worker can achieve is also dependent on stage of life. I found pre children I could sleep well in between night shifts and even between late/early shifts. Post having children and as I have aged I find night shifts destroying usually only having 4 hours sleep in 48 hours. Sleep inertia is something shift workers just live with.
    There are so many factors that affect sleep and being a shift worker for 30 years I can honestly say I have never worked for a hospital where the upper management care about healthy sleep or how much sleep their staff have. It’s as usual nurses looking after nurses that get people through.

  5. There is no taking into account on call between shifts in this article. This takes an enormous toll on concentration and productivity. Especially if you are on call for emergency return to work and get called in several times during the night. – yes some places have a mandatory number of hours breaks after last call in completed and yet others do not.

  6. Finishing a shift at 10pm then having to be back in work at 7 am is brutal. As by the time settling into bed it’s time to get up again. I wish there was something that could be done about these turn around as im constantly sick due after doing this turn around and know I’m not as productive in work the next day.

  7. Agreed late early shifts are brutal particularly for people who live a distance from their workplace. Poor rest in between shifts makes for potential errors the next day, poor judgement and difficulty resting when you finally make it to your days off. My workplace have multiple late early shifts in one week, these are completely exhausting. We should have an opt in system for late early shifts. In an ideal world I would work a week of lates a week of earlys and a week of nights. That way I know I can get enough rest and repose for the week.

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