We Work The Night Shift. Here Are Our Tips For Avoiding Exhaustion.

While the rest of us are sleeping, millions of Americans are clocking in each evening to work night shifts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 10% of all working adults in the U.S. do overnights.

Night shift workers are essential. Hospitals, fire departments and your favorite morning bakery would not be able to run without them. But it can be a brutal schedule to endure.

“It’s definitely not for the weak,” said Anna Pascarella, a California-based labor and delivery nurse, who did night shifts full-time for seven years and does them intermittently now.

Working against your natural sleep cycle is tough because we have a 24-hour internal clock that governs our body and minds. That biological clock wants us to use nights to sleep, rest and recover. When we go against that natural circadian rhythm, it can make us cranky, tired and can lead to poor health outcomes.

But it’s a necessary shift that so many of us do each night. HuffPost reached out to night shift workers in a variety of industries to get their best tips for staying alert and taking care of yourself when you’re tired. Here’s what they shared:

Protect your sleep time.

Getting good sleep means sleeping at least seven hours as an adult. One rule that helps? Holding yourself accountable to your bedtime. If you’re exhausted ― whether it’s because you’re a shift worker yourself or maybe you just didn’t get good rest the night before ― make sure to try to stick to a good sleep schedule as best as you can so you can recoup after lost sleep.

“The world is not built for semi-nocturnal people,” said Claire Murashima, an overnight segment producer for NPR’s Morning Edition in Washington, D.C. “And if I’m going to get sleep, I need to be the one to say like, ‘No, I’m not going to your party, or your happy hour or your event because I need to sleep.’”

Night workers also recommended melatonin supplements, white noise machines, soft ear plugs and blackout curtains to make it easier to fall and stay asleep.

“If I saw daylight when I was waking up even subconsciously, that would make it so hard for me to go back to sleep. So blackout curtains are my best friend for that,” Murashima said.

Try not to obsess over following every sleep hack you read, though. “People have a lot of pieces of advice, but really you know your body best and you know what will help you sleep,” Murashima said. “If you’re too stressed about getting sleep, that will prevent you from actually sleeping.”

Be disciplined about blocking out interruptions.

If you do not want to go to work like a zombie, you need uninterrupted sleep. Loud noises and sunlight can wake you up before you are ready ― and so can roommates and well-meaning loved ones who do not understand why you need peace and quiet.

Michelle Tam is the creator of the Nom Nom Paleo food blog who also worked as a full-time night shift pharmacist for 12 years while she was raising her young children. One of Tam’s top tips is to be rigid about not doing child care when you are supposed to be sleeping.

“People assume because they’re not working, they can also take care of the kid during the day. And I’m like, ‘No, you are sleeping during the day.’ Like you’re working at night and you’re sleeping during the day,” she said. “It doesn’t mean just because you’re off work that you take care of the kid until your husband comes home.”

For Tam, using her family support system of her husband and grandparents allowed her to get the rest she needed.

Be mindful about what you eat and drink.

If you’re groggy but need to stay awake, pay attention to your nutrition. What you eat can radically affect how energized you feel.

Kaity McKee, an air ambulance pilot based in Boise, Idaho, works from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. eight days out of the month. On those evenings, she relies on whole foods with lean protein to help her body stay settled when she drinks caffeine.

“Caffeine on an empty stomach is pretty tough on the nervous system so this helps a lot with regulating blood sugar,” McKee said.

Coffee and caffeinated tea can help boost your memory and focus, but don’t overdo it. Caffeine blocks the sleep-inducing chemicals in your brain, and can make your insomnia worse. The Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine ― which is about two to four 8-ounce cups of coffee ― a day.

When Sarah Maria Awang, a telemetry technician in Annapolis, Maryland, works her 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, she will eat dinner, and then small snacks like apples and peanut butter to keep herself going. She purposely avoids drinking soda.

“I think some people have a conception that sugary things help you stay awake, but I think it actually makes you crash,” Awang said. “And it makes you more tired after the initial sugar high. So I try to just drink water or like sparkling water and stuff like that.”

Delaya Lowery prepares donut orders on her overnight shift.
Delaya Lowery prepares donut orders on her overnight shift.

Move your body.

If you feel yourself nodding off to snooze when you shouldn’t be, night shift workers advised getting up and moving.

“I used to bring like little tiny weights with me to work and just do squats in the break room to get my blood flowing,” Pascarella said.

Taking a short walk break with a buddy can help too. Murashima said her line producer will set an alarm, and she and her colleagues will do a two-minute lap during their shifts together. “It’s nice to have that level of connection,” she said.

Exercising can also be a stress reliever and the mental wake-up you need to start your day off right. Delaya Lowery is an overnight baker at Dunkin’. The Jacksonville, North Carolina, resident said she used to feel like a “tired robot,” but waking up earlier to do yoga and go to the gym has helped her become “more present for my family and [feel] more fulfilled overall.”

Give yourself breaks.

When you are tired, a short power nap can also give you a much-needed energy boost.

Pascarella said in her most desperate moments, she has gone to her car, set an alarm and closed her eyes. “You’re already sleep deprived, so like you thrive off little naps or even just closing your eyes for 10, 15, 20 minutes.”

But if you’re beyond tired, recognize when it’s time to stop working, and stay home and avoid driving, because you can be a danger to yourself and others ― especially if you’re a night shift worker. The fatigue associated with working overnights makes you more likely to make mistakes on the job, get in a car crash, and injure yourself or others.

Make time to see the sun.

Fluorescent office lights should not be the only light you see in a day. If you need an instant mood-booster, try basking in some sunlight. Our bodies need sunlight because it helps us get vitamin D, which is essential for maintaining healthy muscles and bones, and warding off depression.

Murashima said when she first started doing night shifts in the winter, she would sleep from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and would only see the sun on her 15-minute bike commute home. “I realized that for me to be happy, I need to have a couple of hours of sunlight per day, she said.

Now, she goes to sleep before work, so that when she is done with her night shift, she still has time to ride her bike and exercise while the sun is out.

Murashima said she looks forward to seeing the sun rise in the middle of her 3:30 a.m. to noon shift: “It just feels good to have done something. And for the sun to be rising.”

Murashima said that on her breaks she likes to "do something physical, rather than just check my phone and scroll because that's not really going to give my brain the reset that it needs."
Murashima said that on her breaks she likes to “do something physical, rather than just check my phone and scroll because that’s not really going to give my brain the reset that it needs.”

Think of the positive aspects of your current situation.

You can complain about getting the schedule no one else wanted, but people who work hard shifts said it helps to stay positive and remind yourself of the unexpected benefits.

Awang does both day and night shifts for her job of continuous cardiac monitoring on patients. She said she appreciates how her night shifts are much calmer and less stressful than her daytime ones: “There’s a lot less influx of new admissions, because obviously the patients are asleep.”

When Awang does transition to her overnight schedule, she does “little mind tricks” on herself to spin her new bedtime in a positive light.

“Instead of being like, ‘Oh, I have to sleep today. I’m wasting the day,’ I get to be like, ‘I get to stay in today. And I get to sleep and relax and be cozy today’ to prepare for night shift tonight,” Awang said.

One other advantage of the night shift is the unique bond you may build with fellow night owls working alongside you in empty buildings and Slack channels.

Murashima said the energy on her night shifts is “like nothing I ever experienced in a workplace.” She’s had 4 a.m. dance parties and has participated in a wear-your-sweatpants-to-work-day with colleagues.

Notice when your schedule is affecting your health.

We all have work days where we are more tired and stressed than usual. But if you feel empty and exhausted all the time, it might be time to consider a switch to a new schedule or a different job. That’s because there is a price your body pays when you continuously stay up working late into the night. Numerous studies have linked night shift schedules to higher risks of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

That’s why Tam’s advice is to stop working nights if you have a choice, because there is no sleep hack that can make up for the toll of overnights. She left night shift work 10 years ago and has “no regrets.”

“It definitely takes a certain person, and I feel like a certain chapter in your life too,” Pascarella said about night shift work.

When Murashima goes to bed before sunset, “The quality of sleep is just not the same,” she said. “I’m very much of the mindset that this is a sacrifice I chose to make early in my career to build my career.”

Ultimately, only you can know if a job is right for you. It’s normal to feel both gratitude for what a hard job has taught you ― as well as relief when you get the opportunity to move on.

Awang has been doing night shifts for a year now, and she appreciates the lessons, but she hopes to transition out of them in the near future.

“Right now I’m still young, so I understand that my body can kind of do this easily,” Awang said. “But I’m also thinking about my long-term health. And I know the toll this can have if you’re doing this for years.”

Comments are closed.