Shift work is a necessary part of today’s work environment. This is despite the fact that working night shift does not promote good health and increase risk exposure when workers cannot concentrate on their jobs because they are tired, drowsy or trying to fight their internal clocks. Popular industrial disasters that caused millions of damage and cost the lives of hundreds of people happened in the second and third shifts. The Three Mile Island leak happened at 4:00 a.m., the Bhopal gas explosion at 12:45 a.m., the Chernobyl explosion at 1:00 a.m. and the Exxon Valdez oil spill at 12:08 a.m.
Working at night can have consequences that could lead to lower productivity and can cause accidents as it increases the risk of making poor decisions or even mistakes. It is therefore important to learn how to prepare for night shifts and manage your daytime sleep to minimize the risk of personal injury and property damage.
Sleep and Night Work
Our human bodies are designed to sleep at night. Although many people have already been accustomed to working at night and some were already able to adjust to this work schedules, still we all have to accept the fact that working at night inevitably causes sleep deprivation and fatigue.
Our bodies are controlled by our internal biological clock. Our biological clock generates circadian rhythms that run over a period of approximately 24 hours and are strongly influenced by the natural cycles of light and dark. At night, many of the processes in our bodies that are active during the day start to slow down as our bodies prepare to sleep. Working at night involves fighting against these rhythms in order to stay awake and functional. What is worse is when your night shift is finished and you go home to try to get your much needed sleep, your internal body clock, daylight and your environment in general, will tell you that it is the time to be awake and active.
Ironies of Night Shift
Despite the unnatural mental and physical state of workers during night shifts, it is ironic that there are no managers to oversee the operation. Some companies understaffed their graveyard shifts to save cost, a case of false economy. Maintenance is manned only by skeleton staff as if machines are less likely to breakdown when it is dark. In some companies, production is only manned by the night shift operations and production personnel while maintenance and other support staff are in on-call status. Oftentimes, there are no medical personnel and company clinics are closed, as if accidents sleep at night. And still, other companies schedule critical emergency repairs and maintenance during night shift when there is less traffic in the area, power demands are minimum and production demands are low.
Good Sleeping Habit
An important first step to minimize the negative effects of night shift is to have a good sleeping habit. Make sure that your bedroom is a suitable place in which to sleep. Try to associate your bedroom with sleeping. Avoid watching television, using computer and playing videogames in the bedroom. If you cannot sleep after having in bed for more than 30 minutes, try some relaxation exercise, listen to some soothing music or take a bath. It is important to condition yourself and try to build a positive association between bed and sleeping. If you can do this, your ability to fall asleep once you go to bed will improve.
Before the Night Shift
Although individuals vary, for most adults, seven to eight hours a night appears to the best amount of sleep. If you manage to sleep less than this you incur “sleep debt”. Sleep debt is cumulative and must be repaid soon after it is incurred. The only way to repay sleep debt is by catching up the lost sleep.
Get plenty of sleep and make sure you are well rested before you start a night shift. Two to three hours sleep before the first night shift will reduce the build-up of fatigue, and make it much easier to remain awake and functional through the night. Preparing yourself sufficiently in advance, mentally and physically, can reduce the negative impact of night shifts on your well-being.
During the night shift
Taking a 15 to 30 minutes nap is a powerful means of staying awake and refreshed. However, your nap should not last longer that 45 minutes in order to avoid the groggy after-effects or “sleep inertia” that you may suffer if you rest longer. Set an alarm before you nap to make sure you don’t fall into prolonged deep sleep. Naps are more effective if taken early, before you feel really tired.
Make sure your work area is adequately lighted. Exposure to bright light during the night has an alerting effect on the brain and prevents drowsiness. Intermittent light exposure is also as effective as continuous exposure.
Eat a full meal before you come on duty and pack something to eat halfway through your shift. Eat and drink properly so that you don’t feel hungry and dehydrated during your shift. If you decide to use caffeinated beverage to aid your alertness, it may be best to take it in small amounts. The effects of a cup of coffee can be felt within 20 minute and may last up to three or four hours.
After the night shift
When the night shift is over, you should aim to repay any sleep debt you have built up before getting back to your normal daytime life. If you have to work more nights wear dark sunglasses on your way home. Exposure to bright sunlight is one of the key triggers for resetting your internal body clock back to its normal daytime routine. When you get home, try to sleep immediately. Study shows that shift workers who go to bed at 10 a.m. tend to sleep for four hours, while those who retire at midday sleep for an hour less.
If you are hungry, eat easily digestible food before going to bed. If you are thirsty, have something to drink but avoid caffeinated and alcoholic drinks. Although alcohol will help you relax and fall asleep initially but alcohol disturbs the stages of deep sleep and deprives you with the needed rest.
Make sure your bedroom is quite, dark and not too hot. Have a good blackout curtain installed in your windows to filter daylight or use eyeshades. A soothing music playing at very low volume may be helpful to provide neutral and constant background sound and avoid hearing external noise like traffic and building works.
Get enough sleep to keep your sleep debt to a minimum. Reducing the build-up of sleep debt and repaying this sleep debt promptly will help you to recover well and may have longer health benefits.