Sep 26, 2023

Handy tips to help shiftworkers improve their sleeping habits

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Shiftworkers are being called upon to improve their sleeping habits this Sleep Health Week. [Source: Shutterstock]

Sleep Health Week (September 25 to October 1) is the perfect chance to recognise the impact sleep has on aged care workers, including shiftworkers who have to change their normal sleep routines. 

The theme for Sleep Health Week in 2023 is Better Sleep. Better Health and the focus on the health implications of good and bad sleep is incredibly important. So too is looking at the ways aged care workers can improve their sleep habits.

“Sleep is extremely important for all aspects of our health and well-being. When we don’t get the amount of good quality sleep we need on an ongoing basis, it can have some significant adverse outcomes,” Doctor Tracey Sletten, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health explained. 

“Shiftworkers are at an increased risk of those adverse health outcomes through cardiovascular or metabolic disorders and mental health challenges. A large part of that comes from variations in sleeping patterns and circadian misalignment.”

What is a circadian rhythm?

  • Circadian rhythms are essential functions and processes, including the sleep-wake cycle which indicates when you’re ready to get up or ready for bed 
  • If you’re a shiftworker, your natural sleep-wake cycle will be pushed aside while you transition into a sleeping pattern to suit different working hours
  • If your sleep-wake cycle is not aligned with your natural circadian rhythm it will impact the quality of your sleep and your health. Short-term changes will have less of an impact

Shiftworkers are also among the most susceptible to underlying sleep disorders, which are believed to affect up to 40% of Australian adults with many undiagnosed. 

“There’s a proportion of shift workers who experience extreme sleepiness and much higher symptoms of insomnia and we refer to that as shift work disorder (SWD) where we can actually provide greater interventions for them,” Dr Sletten said.

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Doctor Tracey Sletten, Senior Lecturer, Psychology at Monash University’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health. [Source: Monash University]

How can shiftworkers develop healthy sleep habits?

There can be some serious performance consequences from poor sleep habits, such as poor decision-making, slower reaction times, increased fatigue and loss of concentration. Dr Sletten said there are sleep health solutions available to help optimise health, performance and safety, and she provided several recommendations depending on the rosters.

Morning shifts

  • If you consistently work early morning shifts, maintain your early morning starts even when you have a day off
  • This will keep your sleep-wake cycle in tune with your body clock when you return to work
  • Reducing light exposure in the evenings will help your body clock adjust to falling asleep earlier at night
  • Increasing light exposure in the morning will prompt you to wake up earlier than if you slept in a completely dark room
  • You could consider purchasing smart lights that can be set to a timer so you can control the brightness/darkness of your bedroom

Night shifts

  • Have a nap before your first night shift to help you ease into the routine and avoid being awake for 18-24 hours in one go
  • Go to sleep as early as possible when you return home, and don’t be afraid to have another nap if you wake up earlier in the day
  • Similar to lighting suggestions for working morning shifts, give yourself a dark room to sleep in during the morning/day
  • Use caffeine as a tool to support your alertness, but avoid relying on it to keep you awake overnight: a healthy sleep pattern should do this on its own

Additionally, shiftworkers who typically work nights should be more cautious about altering their body clock. Dr Sletten said if you are only working one or two night shifts you don’t want your circadian rhythm to change as you’ll be back to a normal routine right after. She also debunked the myth that people can adjust to night shifts.

“People often believe you adapt to night shifts so it’s better to do more because by the time you’ve done seven, you’re good to go. But we find that’s very rare so we suggest you only do three consecutive nights in a row because you’re going to become more sleepy as those shifts go on,” she said.

When to seek help

As highlighted by Dr Sletten, it’s possible that aged care workers – not just those working night shifts – have an underlying sleep disorder that’s being written off as tiredness or fatigue. If you do feel as though you’re consistently struggling with sleep, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional.

For workers after more ways to take control of their sleep health, you can also email base.sleepsync@monash.edu to sign up for trials with an app called SleepSync that can provide you with personalised sleep schedules and other tips. Meanwhile, if you’re after additional resources on healthy sleep habits, visit WorkAlert for more practical solutions.

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