Managing your wellbeing when working the night shift

Working the night shift has long been known to have a negative impact on your wellbeing and productivity. But what exactly is it doing to our bodies and how can we counteract the negative effects?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the biggest impacts of working overnight is disrupted sleep. A study of police officers found a link between working the night-time or evening shift and getting fewer than six hours of sleep a day. The research from the Workplace Health & Safety journal, also showed that there was twice as much chance of experiencing bad quality sleep when people slept for six hours or fewer.

In a separate study, shift workers were also fond to have an increased risk of diabetes – which was especially prevalent in men who had irregular working hours. A study in the journal PLoS Medicine showed that rotating shift workers’ increased Type 2 diabetes risk was likely linked to working shifts impacting insulin activity.

Other studies found that there was an increased risk of obesity, breast cancer, heart disease, and depression in workers who worked overnight. 

But it’s not just health issues that working the night shift can cause. New research from the Surrey Sleep Research Centre found that women are likely to be less able to complete tasks when working the night shift than men. They placed 16 male and 18 female participants on 28-hour days in a controlled environment without natural light-dark cycles to desynchronise their sleep-wake cycles in the same way that shift work does.

Through a wide range of tests, researchers found that women were more cognitively impaired during the early morning hours – which in the real world would coincide with the end of a night shift.

“We show for the first time that challenging the circadian clock affects the performance of men and women differently,” co-author Dr Nayantara Santhi said. “Our research findings are significant in view of shift work-related cognitive deficits and changes in mood. Extrapolation of these results would suggest that women may be more affected by night shift work than men.”

So how can night shift workers make sure that they are as productive as possible, while also looking after their wellbeing?

Having healthy food available at work and home will help night workers to stay healthy. The Sleep Foundation says that people who are sleepy are more likely to reach for unhealthy foods. They recommend that night workers stock their kitchens with easy-to-eat raw vegetables and hummus, fruits, or a container of raw nuts or raisins to prevent them from reaching for crisps and biscuits when hunger strikes.

They also say that night workers should try to eat small, frequent meals, rather than large ones as eating a large meal can make you feel sluggish and tired – and they recommend trying to eat in line with a regular day, rather than eating late at night or throughout a night shift.

For night workers, getting enough sleep is probably the biggest challenge. General advice is to aim for seven to nine hours, but when you’re working opposite times to the rest of the world that can be hard.

“The problem can be moving between socially acceptable sleep/wake patterns and unacceptable patterns. Working on the night shift for four nights, and then switching back to days is not enough to shift your body clock,” Professor of sleep Derk-Jan Dijk says. “When trying to sleep you need to make the room as dark and quiet as possible. And don’t think that all the sleep has to be in one block – you can get two chunks of three hours if that works for you.”

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