World-consensus sleep guidelines for shift workers


International sleep and shift work researchers have come together in a world-first consensus on how shift workers can best schedule their shuteye.

The CQUniversity (CQU) research, published in academic journal SLEEP, outlines 18 clear guidelines to ensure healthy sleep patterns, whether on permanent night shift or a rotating roster.

The guidance is good news for more than two million shift workers across Australia, including nurses and midwives, who frequently experience difficulty in establishing normal sleep/wake patterns.

The vast majority of the more than 50 experts agreed that tailored guidelines were required for shift workers, said lead author and CQUniversity PhD candidate Alexandra Shriane, a former paramedic for Queensland Ambulance Service and shift worker herself.

“Until now, there hasn’t been consistent advice to help shift workers sleep, and that has meant a lot of them were trying to adapt standard advice to their non-standard sleep/wake patterns.

“But that standard advice might be telling them they need to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, and that’s just not practical for shift workers – and actually quite frustrating for them to hear.”

Research consistently shows shift workers get less quality sleep than the rest of the population, with many only managing less than six hours a day.

“These guidelines are a response to the significant evidence linking shift work with illness, injury, work errors and lower job satisfaction,” Mrs Shriane said.

“We need to help shift workers sleep better for their own wellbeing, and because our most vital industries rely on well-rested employees to safely deliver services around the clock.”

Titled Healthy Sleep Practices for Shift Workers, the guidelines include research-informed insights like:

  • developing a sleep schedule across your roster;
  • using light to your advantage; and
  • transitioning between periods of work and days off.

‘Guideline 6’ highlights napping as a helpful tool. Mrs Shriane said the key is in finding the “nap sweet spot”.

“Naps less than 15 minutes may be too short to be beneficial, while naps longer than 20 minutes may make you more likely to experience sleep inertia, and we appreciate that’s tricky advice.

“But shift workers do develop a sense of the best length of nap for them and the guideline highlights those naps should be avoided too close to their main sleep.”

There’s also strategic advice for scheduling food and fluids, and the use of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and medicines.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates 16% of the workforce regularly engages in shift work, or approximately 2.25 million workers.

Mrs Shriane hopes the guidelines will offer some respite for healthy sleeping in the increasingly 24-hour world.

“We know that shift workers have to be flexible in their schedules and their lifestyles, and these guidelines recognise that, and also offer flexibility across different industries, and work demands.

“The strategies are based on a huge wealth of scientific evidence and will work for most people – but everyone is different, and we hope the guidelines adapt around workers’ different shift schedules, lifestyles, and commitments.

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