The UK has become a place that never stops with new analysis published by the Trades Union Congress showing that the number of people that work night shifts has risen by 5% or 151,000 people since 2013. This has taken the overall total number of night shift workers to just over 3 million people.
This translates into one every nine employees (11.5%) in Britain working through the night. Night shift work takes place in a whole range of industries but is most common within Protective services (police, fire and prison services, Service workers and Road transport.
Is the Demographic picture changing?
Interestingly the most significant demographic rise in the number of night workers has been seen in the over 50’s which has risen by 114.5%.
While the majority of night workers are aged between 30 and 49, there is an increasing burden of having to work past the traditional retirement age of 65 which has then increased the age distribution of night workers.
Currently, there are 674,000-night workers in the UK who are aged between 50 and 59 which is an increase of 94.8%. Also, night workers aged over 60 currently stands at 197,000 which represents a 392.7% increase in comparison to 2013 figures.
Several years ago, night shift work used to be either part-time or rotational however the most significant shift is that increased amounts of people are now working nights shifts on full-time hours in permanent roles.
How does working night shifts affect the body?
Shift work has long been linked to a range of dangerous health issues by the National Sleep Foundation including heart disease, obesity and metabolic problems.
However, scientists at the Sleep Research Centre in Surrey have discovered that disruptive shift work can also cause issues at a deeper molecular level within the body. This also highlighted that the speed and level of damage were heightened by being awake at night.
The human body has its internal body clock with its natural rhythm which makes you instinctively want to sleep at night and be awake in the daytime.
This internal body clock has a significant impact on the functioning of the body and affects a whole host of processes including hormone production, body temperature, physical ability, brain function and overall day to day mood.
This specific study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and involved 22 subjects who were monitored as their normal sleeping pattern shifted to a pattern of a night shift worker.
Genes are characterised as pieces of information that are located within the DNA. In the normal human body, 6% of these genes were precisely optimised to be more or less active throughout specific times of the day. This study discovered that when subjects were working throughout the night, this fine-tuning and timed release were negatively affected.
Alarmingly, the disruption to the body of shifting to a night working pattern took effect much sooner than initially anticipated. It has previously been assumed that effects took hold over the longer term.
Additional studies have uncovered that shift workers who don’t get adequate sleep at the wrong times of the days can increase their risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity.
While research conducted by Stroke Prevention and Atherosclerosis Research Centre suggest that heart attacks are more common amongst night workers.
So how can you fix this?
People need to work through the night for many reasons, so it’s never as easy as just immediately stopping working through the night.
The best thing you can do is change your habits that can decrease the risk of being subjected to these health and safety risks. We’ve compiled many ways that you can effectively manage your body and sleep if you work nights.
Optimise Your Diet
When the natural rhythm of your body is disrupted, this also affects your metabolism which is the organic and chemical processes that are vital to maintaining life. Night shift workers are more prone to experiencing metabolic syndromes while also being 29% more susceptible to becoming overweight or obese.
Avoid or Reduce Sugar Intake
Sugar provides the body with a short burst of energy; however, this is often short-lived and can cause you to have a crash in energy which can make you feel even more tired. Simple sugars are often referred to as empty calories because they usually don’t fill you up, so you end up feeling hungry shortly after.
This can cause you to overeat which can lead to unwanted weight gain if repeated frequently.
Snack on healthy alternatives
If you do feel the urge for a snack, then choose a fruit or vegetable which contains the sugar you may be craving. The difference between these natural sugars compared to artificial sugar is the conversion to energy is slower, and they are also a vital source of vitamins and minerals.
If you’re working through the night, then you should aim to have frequent light meals. This is because heavier meals can often make you feel drowsy which can then make it hard to make it through the night.
Also, the foods you choose should be easy to digest. The harder the food is to digest, the more energy your body has to allocate to the process. Foods that are easy to digest include fruit, vegetable, bread and pasta. While foods that are difficult to digest include processed foods.
Although the content of your meals is important, the timing of your meals is also important. Avoid eating meals between midnight, and 6 am because this is when your body struggles to digest and metabolise food.
If you avoid these times, when you get home in the morning after your night shift, you should eat a light, healthy meal before going to sleep. A light meal means that your body can digest while you sleep, but you also won’t be woken up because of hunger.
You should stick to three meals at consistent times of the day. Even if the times are unorthodox, they need to be consistent. This will stop you from overeating or feeling the urge to consistently snack. The regular schedule means your body knows when to expect food so the cravings will reduce.
Staying hydrated throughout the nightshift is essential to ensure that you maintain both mental and physical performance.
Stick to the recommended amount of 2 litres per day and have it evenly throughout the day. If you have too much throughout your night shift, then this may lead to your bladder being overloaded before you go to sleep.
Light exposure control
Light exposure has a profound effect on the body and triggers your circadian rhythm internal body clock which is responsible for your sleep and wake cycles. One regular process is the release of Melatonin when it gets dark in the evening which is why you begin to feel tired towards the end of the day.
During the morning Melatonin levels or suppressed which then removes this drowsiness feeling leaving you more awake.
It’s not just natural light that has this effect, but you can also use artificial light to impact your circadian rhythm. So for instance, using bright light during night shifts can essentially trick your body into staying more alert. The opposite can also be implemented where you decrease light exposure once you have finished work to trigger the feeling of sleepiness.
This theory has been back by a critical study which revealed those night workers who were exposed to bright levels of light throughout their night shift and then subsequently wore sunglasses on the way home to decrease their exposure to light got to sleep quicker. These workers then slept for longer compared to those who did not receive any bright light exposure.
Increase Light Throughout The Night
Increasing the amount of bright light will improve your concentration and delay the release of sleep hormone Melatonin. In most night shift professions such as healthcare or emergency services, you will usually be exposed to bright natural light.
However, in other professions such as security or office based roles, you may need to increase the concentration of light with either overhead lights or a bright desk lamp.
Wear Sunglasses On The Way Home
Wearing sunglasses on the way home can reduce the amount of sunlight that can reach your eyes which will lead to a decrease in alertness resulting in a rise in the secretion of sleep hormone Melatonin.
Use Blackout Blinds Or a Sleep Mask
Blackout blinds are a way to completely remove natural light from your bedroom or the area that you sleep in. This will not only help to release optimal levels of
Melatonin but it also stops you from being disturbed and woken up by bright daylight so you can experience more extended periods of deep REM sleeps o you wake up feeling more refreshed.
Avoid Digital Devices
It’s a common misconception that watching TV will make you drift off to sleep, but this can often have the opposite effect. The bright blue light emitted from TV’s and other electrical devices delay to release of Melatonin so it can make it harder to drift off to sleep.
To make your room more sleep-friendly you should turn off digital devices and block any light, while also not sitting on your phone in bed as this will also limit the amount of sleep you get if you spend a couple of hours browsing through social media and other apps.
Napping is becoming increasingly more accepted in modern society and is an essential component when working nights. A nap can be utilised at various parts of the day but will be most commonly used before the start of your shift to combat tiredness or during your work break to ensure that you stay alert throughout the remainder of your shift.
Studies have shown that taking a nap can improve cognitive ability and learning capacity.
The great thing about naps is that they only need to be 20 – 30 minutes to have the desired effect. You need to limit it to this duration because any longer and you run the risk of falling into a deep sleep which then makes you feel drowsy when you eventually wake.
Some workplaces even have designated napping areas so you can catch up on sleep throughout your breaks during your shifts.
Sleeping Pattern Management
Some people have no issues with switching to night shifts and can still have a fully functioning sleeping pattern, whereas others find it difficult and develop fatigues and other sleep issues. This is because the human body is naturally created to sleep at night and be awake throughout the day.
Nights shifts are unnatural to the body because it causes you to fight against your natural rhythm forcing you to stay awake. This is made worse when you return home after completing a night shift because both your internal body clock and daylight exposure are signalling your body to stay awake.
It’s recommended that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night to ensure that you perform at your best. The key to working at night is to manage your sleep throughout the day successfully.
Go to Bed Straightaway
Once you get home from your night shift, you should aim to go to sleep as soon as you can. Of course, there may be certain things you have to do such as eating, but the longer your stay up in daylight, the more awake you will feel.
Consistently Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep
The key to sleeping well after a night shift is to set an aside a consistent period of sleep that you get each day. This means that you will get a higher quality of sleep and your body will be better equipped to stay awake throughout your night shift.
Avoid Alcohol before bed
Alcohol is one of the killers of sleep quality and should be avoided. Although it might make you fall asleep quicker, it ruins the quality of your sleep so you’ll still feel fatigues when you wake up several hours later.
Avoid Smoking before bed
Although it can be difficult, you should avoid smoking before bed because it contains Nicotine which works as a stimulant keeping you awake.
Get Your Friends & Family On Board
The key to waking up refreshed is REM uninterrupted sleep, so it’s important that your friends and family are notified that you’re going to be sleeping between certain hours of the day, so they don’t disturb you.
Work Schedule Optimisation
The way you work can also be altered to make it more sleep-friendly allowing you to get more restful sleep regularly. Often the frequency and rate we work are out of our control, but if you have the flexibility to alter any of these factors, then this can significantly improve your sleep.
Avoid rotating shifts
You should aim to stick to one set of shifts so if you work nights, stick to nights. If you suddenly find yourself with a shift pattern where you’re working three days of night shifts followed by two days shifts, then your internal body is consciously trying to adapt to your ever-changing schedule which will affect your sleep quality.
Avoid working consecutive nights in a row
If you work multiple nights in a row, this can increase the level of sleep deprivation that you accumulate. So, if it’s possible, it’s recommended that you schedule days off in between each night shift which gives you more time to recover.
Avoid overtime or extended hours
By avoiding extended working hours, this will ensure that you get enough hours of sleep when you get home. Overworking yourself will develop higher levels of fatigue and sleep debt making it harder for your body to recover
Avoid long commuting distances
If you do need to work night shifts the best scenario is that it’s close to your home to minimise the commuting distance. You also need to restrict the number of errands that you run on your way home even though it can be tempting.
All the techniques throughout this guide won’t be suited to everyone, but it’s vital to find the right combination that works to improve your sleep. You may not be able to switch away from working night shifts completely, but you can optimise your sleep to reduce the adverse effects.