Shift work and sleep: Coping strategies

Shift work and sleep don’t go hand-in-hand. And this isn’t just night shifts – early mornings, late nights, graveyard shifts, split shifts, and rotating shifts – rather anything between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

You can sleep during the day, but it’s not the same. Shift workers have shorter, more interrupted, and lower quality sleep – about 75 percent of them report disturbed sleep.

Coping Strategies for Shift Work and Sleep

Some coping strategies, like wearing eye masks and earplugs, can help, but you’ll still have family commitments, social obligations, and daytime errands.

It’s very difficult to do shift work and get a proper sleep. And when you sleep less, light sleep and REM sleep are often the first to go.

But, as we pointed out previously, these stages of sleep are crucial for alertness, concentration, problem solving, and emotional regulation – all of which are important in a safe workplace.

One in ten shift workers are thought to have shift work sleep disorder, a misalignment in the circadian rhythm – caused by irregular working schedules – that makes it hard to get rest when you want or need to sleep.

Being sleep deprived leads to more mistakes, accidents, injuries, and missed days of work, costing the Canadian economy up to $21bn per year.

It can also cause psychomotor lapses, or microsleeps. You’ve probably had one before – your eyes close just a little too long, your head starts to nod.

This is real sleep and can happen involuntarily at anytime, lasting up to 15 seconds.

Are Coping Strategies Effective?

There are several common coping strategies that people use to try and get more sleep, but having a nightcap might not be the best idea:

1. Alcohol

Alcohol is commonly thought to help you sleep. It’s true that it sedates the body, but any sleep this induces will be lighter and less restful. You won’t get REM sleep or any of its benefits, including dreams! That’s why you can wake up after a night out and feel like you haven’t slept at all.

2. Sleeping pills

Like alcohol, sleeping pills sedate the body. You’ll certainly sleep, but you won’t get the benefits of light sleep, decreasing function in the frontal lobe, among others. In the U.S., four per cent of adults rely on sleeping pills to get to sleep – worrisome numbers considering the pills are linked to cancer and even mortality.

3. Cannabis

Everyone knows the stereotype of the sleepy stoner, but the jury is still out on whether cannabis actually helps with sleep. While it certainly affects sleep, it’s not clear whether this is positive. Occasional use might help you nod off, but for daily smokers, it might do more harm than good. Insomnia is also the most common symptom of cannabis withdrawal (yes, that’s a thing!). On top of this, cannabis suppresses REM sleep, which is why users report not being able to remember their dreams – they actually aren’t having any or getting the benefits of REM!

4. Melatonin

The body produces melatonin naturally – it’s the hormone that starts our sleep cycle, though it doesn’t induce sleep itself. Melatonin supplements are available over-the-counter, but the dosage isn’t regulated and can vary widely, meaning users might not know how much they are taking. Melatonin has been reported to help with falling asleep, but some research suggests this is a placebo effect.

5. Vitamin D

Of all these methods, vitamin D is consistently the most effective. It is proven to help you fall asleep faster and keep you snoozing longer. Deficiencies show the opposite effects – shorter, lower quality sleep. The recommended dose is 1000-4000 IU per day, but it doesn’t work alone; you still need to practice good sleep habits.

The best case scenario is having a good night’s sleep without supplements or drugs. Later in our EWI Works series on sleep, we’ll give you some tips on how to achieve this.

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