In the first article in this series, we saw how pervasive shift work culture has become, and how sleep deprivation can be the likely fallout of a shift job, unless properly managed. In this article, we will look at some expert tips to manage sleep before and after your shift, as well as some ‘best practices’ shift workers can follow to ensure overall well-being.   

Before starting the shift

Ensure you are well-rested: Aim to get 6-8 hours of good sleep every day before starting your shift. If your sleep timings are irregular, your body will have no idea of your sleep-wake timings, and this could affect its ability to regulate the release of hormones like melatonin (instrumental in making you fall asleep) and cortisol (which wakes you up and gives you energy to power through the day). To avoid this confusion and the resultant symptoms, make it a habit to prioritise adequate, good-quality (undisturbed, restful) sleep when you get back home from work.

Exercise: Add some activity to your day. Since it may be too hot or crowded for a walk in the daytime, you can work out at the gym or go for a swim, if convenient. You can also practice some form of yoga with breathing exercises to synchronise your body and mind.

Don’t miss ‘breakfast’: Dr Vijaya Krishnan, Founder Secretary of the Indian Association of Surgeons for Sleep Apnoea (IASSA), says that many night shift workers often skip a meal right after they wake up, and eat only just before the shift. “Breakfast is a very important meal, even if you’re in a shift,” he says. A few hours later, before your shift begins, follow it up with another healthy meal (your ‘lunch’) to prepare yourself for the night ahead.  

Towards the end of the shift

Gradually decrease stimulation: Towards the end of your shift, start shifting your body into ‘relaxation’ mode. Neurologist and sleep expert Dr Manvir Bhatia recommends avoiding stimulants such as coffee 5-6 hours before the shift ends (though 1-2 cups in the first 2-3 hours is fine). If it’s bright outside when you finish work, wear dark glasses to minimise sun exposure. Cigarettes, too, are considered stimulants and should be avoided.

Avoid alcohol or sleeping pills: Once you’ve been working in a shift for a few days, your body should have adapted to the new schedule. But if you find yourself relying on alcohol or sleeping pills to fall asleep, that’s not a good sign. Try to rid yourself of these habit-forming actions, and use more natural methods, such as aromatherapy or soothing music to fall asleep.

Ensure your bedroom is dark, cool and quiet: Your chances of sleep are highest if the room you sleep in is dark, cool and free of ambient noise. Any light—whether sunlight or artificial ones—can interfere with melatonin secretion, so keep the lights off and curtains drawn. Soundproof your room or use earplugs, and let your family or flatmates know that you don’t want to be disturbed.

Other practices to follow

Avoid frequent changes: Rotating shifts too frequently (for e.g. every week) can be riskier for health than working in a regular shift. Dr Krishnan recommends that at a minimum, the same timing be followed for 2-4 weeks before being changed. And when the time does come to change your shift, take a break for a couple of days to get your body accustomed to the new timings.

Follow the same schedule on weekends: Dr Himanshu Garg, pulmonologist and somnologist, says that he often sees shift workers flip their sleeping schedules on weekends, which plays havoc with the body. “As far as possible, I advise people to stick to the same schedule they follow on working days.” Dr Garg also says that the concept of ‘anchor sleep’—which includes an overlapping period of sleep on both working and non-working days—could be useful here so that the body looks forward to uninterrupted sleep at a fixed time on all days.

Set up a good support system: Dr Bhatia says it’s important to have the support of your family and immediate circle to ensure that your time at home is not burdened by chores or other disturbances. This support helps reduce stress levels and improves your chances of sleeping well.

Educate yourself: As the perils of sleep deprivation are being realised, governments and individuals industries are attempting to regulate rules and work timings for shift workers. For example, work hours for junior resident doctors and aviation staff are officially limited to 12 hours a day. There are also stipulated limits on the mandatory time between consecutive night shifts (although reports suggest these are widely flouted). Find out if the government, or the industry you work for, has issued any rules regarding night shifts. Also check whether your employer offers benefits that might make your life easier—for e.g. a yoga class or in-house doctor or therapist. Availing yourself of these benefits can help ease the stress those long nights put you through.

One final thing to remember

Experts stress that sleep deprivation doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some people may be less vulnerable and others more. The symptoms too can vary—while one person may experience irritability, another might experience weight gain or metabolic issues and yet another might develop insomnia. There could even be combinations of these and other problems. But even if you consider yourself lucky to be relatively unaffected, remember that sleep is an important part of who we are. It is nature’s way of restoring our inner balance and keeping us mentally and physically healthy. So investing in your long-term well-being by managing sleep better is well worth the effort.

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