How to get quality rest as a shift worker in healthcare

A woman sleeping in a grey t-shirt

A role in healthcare can come with many challenges. And if you’re one of the 4 million shift workers in the UK, you’re more than likely to have encountered challenges relating to sleep. Perhaps you struggle nodding off after a long shift, or find yourself waking up during your sleep time? You might feel more groggy during your waking hours too, or develop new health issues as a result of disrupted rest. 

In this article, we’ll explore the impact shift work can have on sleeping patterns, and what you can do to get quality rest as a shift worker in healthcare.

Understanding your circadian rhythm

We all come with a clock, but I’m not talking about the one on your wrist. Circadian rhythms are the body’s internal clock that regulates everything from your hormones and body temperature to eating habits and metabolism. During sleeping hours, they allow the body to rest and recover, and during waking hours, to perform activities. 

These rhythms roughly follow a 24-hour cycle, influenced by external factors like light and darkness. Disrupted cycles can lead to sleep disturbances and fatigue, make it harder to recover from illness and injury, and generally compromise wellbeing. 

Effects of shifting work patterns on circadian rhythms

When you work shifts your working patterns can be irregular, disrupting the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and sending your circadian rhythm out of balance.

You might struggle to get to sleep or get enough quality rest leaving you feeling tired during your waking hours. You might also feel more anxious or stressed, or develop health issues as a result of disruption to your circadian rhythm cycle. In fact, 30% of shift workers who work night, early morning or rotating shifts have a sleep disorder.

If your shifts fall outside the 9-5, you work overnight or start early in the morning, or your hours rotate, you could benefit from our top tips for quality rest. 

How to get quality rest as a shift worker

Create a sleep sanctuary

This is especially important if your sleep falls in daylight hours. Make your bedroom as dark as possible by investing in blackout curtains or a sleep mask. Noise-cancelling devices, relaxing music and ear plugs can also be helpful if you find yourself being woken by external noises.

Stick to a sleep routine

Regardless of what time you hit the sack, try to stick to the same familiar routine. Put your phone on silent and away around an hour before bed, and avoid other light sources like televisions and tablets. Take a warm bath, jot down your thoughts in a journal, read a few pages of a good book, or listen to some relaxing music or a sleepcast. You should always aim for between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, and stick to a similar routine even on your days off if you can.

Pay attention to your nutrition

Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime, and steer clear of caffeine and alcohol in the hours leading up to rest. If you’re feeling peckish before bed, opt for light, easily digestible snacks like banana with almond butter, nuts and seeds or yoghurt. As tempting as they may be, a spicy curry or sugar-rich chocolate bar can upset your tummy before lights out. 

Take naps

If you’re struggling with fatigue during your shift, try taking a power nap during a break. Remember to keep naps to 20-30 minutes to avoid grogginess and disruption to your sleep schedule. 

Expose yourself to light

If possible, maximise your exposure to natural light during your waking hours to help regulate your circadian rhythms. If that’s not possible, consider investing in a therapy light (also known as a SAD lamp) which mimics outdoor light. 

While adjusting your hours of rest to a shift work pattern can be challenging, there are things you can do to optimise your sleep and get quality rest. Experiment with the suggestions above to work out what’s optimal for you. If you’re consistently struggling to get to or stay asleep, or think your shift work pattern is having a negative impact on your health and wellbeing, talk to your doctor.

Ready to prioritise your overall wellbeing, in 2024 and beyond?

We can help. Enrol in our free online Inner Wellness course to learn how you can take control of your emotions and feel more of the ones you want (and less of the ones you don’t). 

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