If you’ve ever worked a job which involves night shifts, you’ll be all too familiar with the havoc it can wreak on your body. Human beings are ultimately incredibly intelligent and complicated animals – animals who are supposed to hunt during the day and sleep at night. As a result, our body clock is adapted to work with the sun, causing us to feel awake and alert during the day and tired and sleepy at night. It’s simple biology. However, in the 24-hour world we consistently find ourselves in, more and more workers are being forced to fight their instincts and work tirelessly through the night.
This leads to a whole host of contradictory advice which doesn’t get anyone anywhere. People might say “take a power nap” or “eat a snack”, and although this can temporarily help when working unnatural hours, you’re fighting against millions of years of biological evolution – it’s a losing battle.
The effects of shift work and exhaustion
Approximately 16% of shift workers frequently work shifts in the evening or night, causing their sleeping patterns to go haywire. As a result, they are 60% more likely to fall asleep on the job compared to people who work regular hours in the day. This is obviously dangerous, especially seeing as many night shift workers are employed in dangerous of critical jobs, such as hospitals or warehouses with dangerous machinery.
This, of course, means that there’s an increased risk of accidents on the job due to falling asleep, with sleepy shift workers endangering both themselves and others. The commute home can be dangerous too, especially if exhausted drivers are trying to stay awake while behind the wheel. Needlessly to say, this irregular sleep also leads to reduced efficiency and productivity during the shift itself, leaving employers dissatisfied.
So what is the solution?
Alas, the best cure for shift work-related tiredness is sleep, and lots of it. If you cannot get the required sleep, taking regular naps can help to improve one’s alertness, at least for a while. It’s recommended that shift workers take a nap before driving home in the morning, improving their alertness for their commute, although this is obviously not always practical, and many people find it difficult to sleep when not in a cozy or familiar environment.
You should ideally take a nap for more than an hour in order to improve alertness, although this is obviously not practical in most workplaces. The other downside here is that longer naps can lead to sleep inertia, making you feel sluggish and groggy after waking up. Ironically, the hour after a long nap can actually make your performance even more impaired than before, making it difficult to strike a balance of naps and regular sleep which fulfills your needs and keep you running at an optimal pace throughout the night.
If you’re going to nap but you have limited time to do so, 30-minute (or less) “power naps” may be your best option. These power naps help to improve your alertness without giving you that groggy feeling which makes it hard to concentrate.
What about food?
Although it can be tempting to binge on high-energy foods during a long night shift, the body simply is not designed to digest food during the night, meaning that eating may actually make you feel more sluggish. Studies conducted on night shift workers have found that people who eat large meals during night shifts find it harder to concentrate than those who don’t eat anything at all. Those who ate a lot during their night shift also felt sleepier and more bloated than those who ate nothing or very little. It seems that snacking or eating nothing at all is the best solution for night shift workers, although once again, this isn’t a very practical option either.
Ultimately, power naps and snacks are not enough to sustain someone through a night shift. In reality, there is very little than you can do other than apply the tips we have discussed in the blog and try to catch sleep whenever possible in the rest of the week. Although you may get paid extra for working nights, is the constant tiredness you feel on your days off really worth it?
If you’re looking for advice on night shift work and accidents which are more likely to happen in workplaces during nights, feel free to speak to a member of our insurance team today!