Sleeping and shift work: A practical approach to Self-Care

Is the lack of self-care the missing piece that makes shift work difficult for us?

Sleeping and shift work: A practical approach to Self-Care

Shift work is unnatural – that is a fact – the human body is meant to rest and recuperate at night time and be active during the day.

Some people will tell you that they get used to shift work and it doesn’t bother them, whilst others outwardly struggle along, which brings one to question what stimulating substances like caffeine and sugar are people relying on to get through, and what is the long-term effect on their bodies and lives?

I have now been doing shift work with the railways (as a Train Driver and now as a Train Controller) for 10 years and by several accounts I do it quite well; what’s more, I do it without the need to rely on caffeine or sugary foods and very rarely have a day off due to illness… but how?

The simple answer is that I’ve developed a deep level of self-care and exercise it to an even higher level when night shifts are involved.

A night shift for me is from 10pm to 6 the next morning, a time when the majority of the population is asleep. Given the importance of my role, I need to be fully awake and alert during that time, ready to respond to any events or emergencies that arise. As I am awake when I would normally be asleep, my primary focus when I am not at work ¬– between, before and after night shifts – is sleep and rest.

It’s taken a while to discover the right rhythm for me, and to throw out some idealistic beliefs I had stuck in my head.

One belief I had was that I still needed to do ‘things’ in between night shifts.

I am home for 14 hours between shifts and can’t sleep that long, but I falsely thought I still had to maintain my level of activity around the house: mowing the grass, shopping or just going out to be with friends and family. In truth, my body in its sleep-disrupted state is not ready for any high-level physical activities, inside or outside the home. That doesn’t mean I lie in bed all day, sleep and do nothing else; but what it does mean is that when I am not asleep I only undertake simple non-physically stimulating activities. I might read a book or cook some nourishing dinner for work later that night. In short, I treat my body very delicately.

The second belief I discovered was untrue was that six or seven hours of sleep during the day was enough to get me through the next night shift.

Sleep during the night is different to sleep during the day; I need more sleep during the day than I do if I am sleeping at night. So, between night shifts my entire focus is about sleep and rest – nothing else. Even if I have had 7 hours of reasonable sleep after a night shift and I start to feel drowsy after only being awake for a few hours, I go back to bed and sleep more: my body is telling me to – my body ultimately knows what is best for me.

One more thing I do is to prepare the bedroom for sleep before I get home in the morning.

Sometimes I do this myself the night before, other times my wife has done it for me in the morning before I arrive home. The blinds are already drawn to make the room dark, there is only a small bedside lamp lit, the bed is turned down and my pyjamas are there. I make the process of getting to bed and getting to sleep as simple as possible and not being confronted with several things to do or a brightly lit room. It’s about preparing the environment I’m going to sleep in and avoiding as much physical activity as possible.

To me shift work and self-care go hand in hand, the latter very much supporting the former and making this topsy-turvy routine of working a few days then working a few nights not only do-able, but making it as less stressful on my body as possible.

Some people find shift work hard and it shows in their bodies – but for me, now a shift worker for 10 years, I feel like it isn’t having an impact on me and I’ll be able to keep doing shift work for many years to come.

Self-care is the key for me that makes a huge difference between ‘just getting through’ with shift work and living a normal life with shift work.

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Shift workExhaustion

  • By Francis Tybislawski, 22 years’ experience in Telecommunications, over 10 years’ experience in Transport Logistics (Rail)

    The only thing I love more than a mystery is solving it. I live each day with a keen desire to understand how everything works; and bringing attention to detail and quality to everything I can.

  • Photography: Matt Paul