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Hints and tips for shift workers

People vary in how they cope with shift work depending on their health, fitness, lifestyle, and domestic responsibilities – some adapt well, others do not. Whilst we cannot change our inbuilt characteristics, it is possible to alter our behaviour or make lifestyle changes that can make shift working an effective and beneficial option for individuals. The hints and tips below draw on commonly available advice and best practice from a range of sources and may improve sleep quality, increase alertness and reduce health risks for shift workers.

Driving to and from work
Driving to and from work can be risky, particularly after a long shift, a night shift or before an early start. The following strategies may make driving safer:
• consider using public transport or taxis rather than driving;
• exercise briefly before your journey;
• share driving if possible;
• drive carefully and defensively;
• allow plenty of time - try not to hurry;
• stop if you feel sleepy and take a short nap if it is safe to do so;
• make occasional use of caffeine or ‘energy’ drinks.

Identify a suitable sleep schedule
Most adults need 7-8 hours sleep. If you cannot do this, try to rest, as this is still beneficial.
• If you work regular shifts, try going to bed at different times eg soon after you arrive back from work or stay up and sleep before the next shift;
• have a short sleep before your first night shift;
• if coming off night shifts, have a short sleep and go to bed earlier that night;
• once you have identified a suitable sleep schedule try to keep to it.

Make the environment favourable for sleeping

Sleep loss and fatigue are some of the most significant problems for shift workers. It is important to try and maintain your normal level of sleep and rest. To help make the environment favourable for sleeping:
• sleep only in your bedroom and avoid using it for other activities such as watching television, eating and working;
• use heavy curtains, blackout blinds or eye shades to darken the bedroom for when you need to sleep during the day;
• disconnect the phone or use an answer machine and turn the ringer down;
• ask your family not to disturb you and to keep the noise down when you are sleeping;
• if it is too noisy to sleep consider using earplugs, white noise or background music to mask external noises;
• adjust the bedroom temperature to a comfortable level, cool conditions improve sleep.

Techniques to promote sleep
To promote sleeping, try to follow a similar routine to the one you follow before a normal nights sleep. The following tips may help you relax after a shift and promote sleep:
• go for a short walk, relax with a book, listen to music and/or take a hot bath before going to bed;
• avoid vigorous exercise before sleep as it is stimulating and raises the body temperature;
• avoid alcohol as it lowers the quality of sleep.

It is very important to consider the timing and quality of your meals. Digestive problems are common in shift workers due to disruption of the body clock and poor diet. Plan your meals to help you stay alert at work and to relax/sleep when you need to rest.
• regular light meals/snacks are less likely to affect alertness or cause drowsiness than a single heavy meal;
• choose foods that are easy to digest such as pasta, rice, bread, salad, fruit, vegetables and milk products;
• avoid sugary foods, such as chocolate – they provide a short-term energy boost followed by a dip in energy levels;
• drink plenty of fluid as dehydration can reduce both mental and physical performance but avoid drinking too much fluid before sleeping as this may overload the bladder.

Stimulants and sedatives

Shift workers often turn to stimulants such as coffee or cigarettes to keep them awake and sedatives such as alcohol or sleeping pills to help them sleep. Avoid such aids as they only have short-term effects on alertness as tolerance to their effects develops. Persistent use may also increase the risk of dependence.

Physical fitness and a healthier lifestyle
An unhealthy lifestyle combined with shift work may increase the likelihood of sleep disorders and sleep loss or exacerbate existing sleep problems. A good diet, regular meals and exercise can improve sleep quality, health and well-being.

Ways to improve your alertness at work
On some shifts, such as nights and very early mornings you may find it difficult to remain alert and this can affect your performance. It may also increase the risk of errors, injury and accidents. You may find it helpful to:
• take moderate exercise before starting work which may increase your alertness during the shift.
• keep the light bright;
• take regular short breaks during the shift if possible;
• get up and walk around during breaks;
• plan to do more stimulating work at the times you feel most drowsy;
• keep in contact with co-workers as this may help both you and them stay alert.

For the full blog visit the Health and Safety Executive

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