Shift Work: Optimizing The 24/7 Workforce

Rotating shift work is a necessity in the safe and efficient operation of a nuclear power plant, hospital, and many other types of corporations. However, many workers who frequently change shifts find it difficult to adjust from one shift to the next. The culprit is our Circadian Rhythm: the natural biological patterns of sleepfulness and wakefulness, governed by a tiny sliver in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Our Circadian Rhythm can be adjusted to fit our schedule, but it takes a few days to readjust to changes. The result of sudden shift changes can include sleepiness during the shift, inability to sleep, irritability, and digestive upset.

The good news is that there are steps shift workers can take to manage the changes in schedule.

Keep in mind that your biological clock can only adjust a couple of hours at a time. It may be helpful for you to begin adjusting your sleep pattern a few days BEFORE you move to another shift, by a couple of hours a day, which should lessen the impact of the new work schedule. Try to get the same amount of sleep at a time, regardless of which shift you’re on. There is a tendency for 3rd shifters to sleep fewer hours per day, which will only make you feel even more tired during your wakeful times. Finally, discuss your sleep needs with your family. It is important that you have UNINTERRUPTED sleep so your brain can benefit from all stages of natural sleep.

There is ample research that suggests that our biological clocks respond to sunlight. Thus, if you need to sleep during the day, take steps to ensure that your bedroom is very dark during your sleep time (think of Al Pacino in Insomnia!). Use a blindfold if you can’t block all light into the room, to "trick" your mind into thinking it’s nighttime. Conversely, when you’re transitioning from 3rd shift to 1st shift, get plenty of exposure to natural sunlight, to help your brain adjust to the change.

One side effect of shift work is an increase in dehydration. To counteract this, drink plenty of non-caffeinated fluids during your shift. (Water works better than juice or soda). Limit caffeine intake; not only is it dehydrating, it will make sleeping during your off time even more difficult.

Keep in mind that your digestive system naturally slows down at night. Thus, when you’re on 2nd or 3rd shift, keep meals light after 10 p.m. or so, to avoid constipation or queasiness. Plan on large or heavy meals early in the day. Especially avoid very spicy foods late at night (just imagine the possible consequences of jalapenos sitting in your stomach all night!).

Get plenty of vigorous exercise in your off time. This will help you stay alert on the job and enhance sleep. When possible, exercise in bright sunlight.

Finally, be wary of medicines or homeopathic remedies to help with sleep and/or wakefulness. Your body can become dependent on most sleeping pills, and over the counter sleep aids usually cause dehydration. Stimulants such as ephedra, maj huong, Metabolife or Minithins can have dire side effects, such as irregular heartbeat, and are habit forming besides.