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Highlights | Sleep better, no matter the shift

  • 15 million Americans work the night shift or irregular hours.
  • More than 70% of shift workers report getting low-quality sleep.
  • Prioritizing sleep and getting better quality sleep is essential.

Call it “shut-eye,” “40 winks” or “hitting the hay.” Whatever the name, you need enough sleep to maintain good health. That’s a tall task for many Americans, though. Roughly 35% of adults say they don’t get the recommended seven to nine hours of slumber every night. And that number increases when it comes to working nights or clocking irregular hours — more than 70% of night shift workers report low sleep quality compared to 50% of day-time employees.

Science of sleep

Jobs requiring people to work outside of typical daylight hours can make it challenging to get the recommended amount and quality of sleep, says Catherine McCall, MD, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine and director of the VA Puget Sound Sleep Medicine Provider Clinics.

“Humans are diurnal creatures. Our biological clocks are set, by default, for us to be awake during the day and asleep at night,” she says. “Many people working shifts outside our normal sleeping cycle experience a circadian mismatch. There’s a conflict between the timing of their internal sleep-wake cycle and when they need to be asleep and awake for their work schedule.”

8 tips to improve sleep

McCall says several strategies can help improve sleep for people working the night shift or irregular hours (or anyone just trying to improve their z’s).

  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule: Stick to your sleep schedule, even on your non-workdays.
  • Keep a cool sleep space: Many sleep experts agree that 65 degrees is the best temperature for good-quality sleep. Taking a warm shower a few hours before bed produces a body-cooling effect for sleep, even if your environment is warmer than the recommended temperature.
  • Create a quiet sleep environment: If you live in the city, or in a home with people that have opposite sleep schedules, embracing white noise can also help decrease those noisy daytime-sleep distractions (fans, a/c units and apps can help with that).
  • Develop a bedtime routine: Create a peaceful and relaxing routine. Consider taking a bath, listening to music or reading a book. McCall says the key is choosing a calming activity.
  • Drink caffeine at the right time: Caffeinated beverages can reduce fatigue. Drink coffee or soda early during a shift so it has time to metabolize and not interfere with sleep later.
  • Get more light during waking hours: Maximizing your exposure to bright light (a stand-in for the sun) can help indicate to your body it’s time to be awake.
  • Reduce bright light exposure during planned sleep times: Put electronic devices down before bed — blue light from screens can interfere with the natural sleep cycle. And, to block out as much light as possible, try blackout curtains or an eye mask to avoid light exposure while you’re sleeping.
  • Take a nap: Consider taking a nap before heading in for the night shift. Dozing off for a short time (think 15-20 minutes) can help with memory, cognition and feeling rejuvenated.

McCall says people who work nontraditional schedules must make quality sleep a top priority.

“People who work the night shift or irregular hours are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting proper rest,” she says. “They need to go above and beyond to ensure they’re getting the sleep they need whenever possible.”