Ask LH: How Can I Sleep Better With My Irregular Work Hours?

Hey Lifehacker, I work as a new graduate in an industry which requires me to have highly erratic and irregular shift work. Some nights I am required to stay up past midnight and then some mornings require me to have an early morning start. On those days I am unable to get to sleep earlier because of my irregular body clock. How can I make sure I get to sleep those nights I really need it? Thanks, Sleep Seeker

Office nap picture from Shutterstock

Dear Seeker,

Does your work provide you with a reasonable break between the end of one shift and the beginning of the next? Depending on the type of industry award you're under, you could be legally entitled to as much as 12 hours off in-between shifts.

If your employer is stacking successive morning and night shifts together, they're probably breaking your workplace rights -- check the industry award that covers your occupation to see how much rest you're entitled to. If you're getting short-changed you can make a complaint to the Fair Work Ombusman.

Most workplaces also have "fitness for work" policies that includes getting an adequate amount of sleep. This is usually the employee's responsibility, but if your sleeping patterns are directly affected by your job, you may be able to negotiate your roster to some degree.

Regardless of what the workplace rules are, it's probably worth having a chat to your boss about it if you're constantly feeling exhausted. One possible solution would be to request more night shifts -- we suspect most of your co-workers would be more than happy to give some of these up. You can find plenty of advice on adjusting to a night shift lifestyle here.

Failing that, you should at least try to keep the amount of sleep you get as regular as possible. Don't get six hours of sleep one night and eight hours the next, as this will only compound the problem.

Improving your diet and getting a decent amount of exercise can also improve your body clock. We'd also recommend planning a sleep schedule in advance as soon as you get your shift for each week. Adequate preparation can make a big difference.

There are oodles of sleeping tips on Lifehacker that can help in this department -- you can peruse them all via our 'Sleep' tag. As always, if any readers have advice of their own, please let Seeker know in the comments section below.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    I did this for four years. A 24 hour office with 2am, 10am, and 6pm shifts. Every week you were rostered onto at least one of each, so your sleeping pattern never lasted more than a couple of days.

    The bad news: You are now at least a little bit tired, all the time. You may not notice it creeping into your life until you eventually change jobs, but it's there.

    Practical advice:
    -If there's a set part of the day you can always be asleep, sleep. if it's the three hours between the times your late shifts end and your early shifts start, you damn well go straight to bed after work and sleep until the last minute. You'll need extra naps as well, but that time is something you can build a circadian rhythm on.
    -Naps. When you're behind in sleep, just steal naps whenever. an hour here or there can make your life much better.
    -those eye mask things you get for free on planes? they can definitely help. try them if you can't get the room dark enough. Cut out most noise sources.
    -you are going to rely on caffeine. a lot. try to stagger the caffeine towards the start of your shift, trailing off towards the end. You want to be able to sleep when you get the chance.
    -Alcohol/drugs. I found a beer shortly before bed definitely helped me drop off. other people used those 'relaxing' teas or some other substances. whatever helps get you past the sleep barrier is a good thing.

    I'm up to 8 years in a job like this and I doubt I will move on. It's great once you teach yourself how to sleep any time.

    1. Give up coffee, completely.
    2. Cut down on your alcohol or stop drinking it completely. Switching to water is better.
    3. Try sleeping in the daytime with your window open, full sunlight and sleep on top of the bed in the sunlight. The warmth of the sun makes one naturally sleepy, so much so the louder and very steady din outside is forgotten. Drop a second pillow over your head if the noise gets too bad.
    4. Nap if and when you feel tired. A 2 hour power nap can do wonders.
    5. Adjust your times in 4 hour increments. As you approach a new shift time slide the window over 2 or so days.
    6. Gently ask your neighbors to respect you are sleeping in their daylight hours and not to play their music at 11. The sound of thiumping bass is probably the hugest risk to sleep - you can't escape that.

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