Settle your sleep debt: How to improve your sleep as a shift worker

Celeste Pinney
Shift work is part of life for nurses and midwives. It can be taxing on the body both physically, mentally and emotionally.

I found night shift to be particularly difficult when I started my career as a midwife. In my first two years working I struggled a lot to maintain good health because I had such difficulty sleeping when I worked night duty. I would only sleep 4─5 hours after a shift, and wake up feeling groggy, flat and unable to think straight. I found it hard to concentrate at work and always felt behind the eight ball. It was difficult regulating my emotions, and I felt out of touch with my usual self.

I am passionate about health and have always prioritised my self-care.

I felt dismayed about night duty as I didn’t feel I could keep to my usual routine of optimal health maintenance. I realised there must be solutions or ‘work arounds’ to help improve my sleep and health during the time I worked a night shift. Being a health geek I did research regarding sleep and ways to lengthen and enhance sleep quality as this seemed to be fundamental to feeling better during night duty.

celeste pinney

I discovered that you can retrain your circadian rhythm to function more optimally by adopting the following approaches. I found these were the best ways to boost my sleep:

  • Wearing dark sunglasses or orange glasses on the way home from work, right up until getting into bed. Sunlight tells your body to wake up and suppresses melatonin. Blocking out light signals your body to go into sleep mode.

  • Keep the bedroom dark with blackout curtains and/or an eye mask.

  • Eat a healthy low GI meal before going to sleep. The meal should have a combination of complex carbs, fat and protein such as eggs on toast or porridge with nuts and yoghurt.

  • After eating, go straight to bed. Avoid other activities as they further stimulate the brain to be in ‘awake mode’.

  • If you wake after 4─5 hours, don’t get up. Lie in bed, try to relax and breathe deeply. Generally, you can fall back to sleep after 30─60 minutes. If you aim to sleep 7─9 hours your health will be much better, and you will feel a lot more human.

  • Upon rising, expose yourself to light. When the days are longer, you can go outside for at least 30 minutes. If it’s winter you can use a light box to tell your body to wake up.

  • Try to exercise for 20─30 minutes after waking up. Research shows exercise improves all aspects of health during night shift.

  • Eat healthy meals — lots of fruits and veggies, good quality protein and fat. Avoid sugary processed foods.

If you are experiencing sleep problems it can be helpful to access information and support. If you would like to talk to someone you can call our confidential support line 24/7 on 1800 667 877.

We also have information on our website to help if you are concerned about shift work and sleep.