9 Practical Tips for Conquering Night Shift Fatigue

Last night my husband and I went to dinner with friends which happened to be the same day I was transition back to reality from night shift mode. I felt like my brain was on delay. I was having an out of body experience. Chatting with our friends required a forced cognitive effort brought on by my intense fatigue. Not to mention my appetite was all off as I had spent the night snacking in order to stay awake at work. If you’re a night-shifter I’m sure you know the feeling.

While part of coping with working the night shift is to learn to live tired, there are a few tactics I’ve tried over the years that seem to help. Here’s what (honestly) works for me.

1. Medicate yourself

If you transition from days to nights every week, medication may not be the healthiest option for you. But, being more of an every other week night-shifter, I often turn to drugs to facilitate my circadian transition. An Ambien induced sleep the afternoon before beginning a string of night shifts is irreplaceable. If my schedule doesn’t allow for seven plus hours of afternoon shut-eye, I opt for Benadryl which allows me to sleep about four hours without feeling hung over.

Caveat. If you are trying sleeping medications for the first time, make sure to do a test run when you don’t actually have to show up for work afterward. Everyone reacts to these medications differently and you don’t want to arrive at work feeling drugged!

2. Plan ahead

Look at your schedule for the week ahead of time and plan your sleep pattern accordingly. The day of your first night shift, leave the afternoon free of other obligations so you have time to nap. Don’t plan activities the morning after you get off of a night shift so you can play catch up. You may even consider going to bed later and later and sleeping in as the week progresses to prepare for the upcoming night shift transition.

I find I’m (obviously) not productive the day following pulling a night or two in the ER, so I schedule easy, mindless activities for my first day off work. Think afternoon grocery store run. I plan more mind intensive activities for days when I am better rested.

3. Cover your eyes

When I’m trying to sleep during the day, any light making its way to my eyelids causes me to toss and turn. I lay in my bed, exhausted, but unable to fall asleep. It’s torture. So, I wear an eye mask. While my mask often falls off mid nap, it at least allows me to fall asleep, often the most difficult step after getting off work.

While I have never tried them myself, blue blocking glasses can be worn when leaving the hospital preventing certain wavelengths of light from reaching your eyes. This keeps your circadian clock from resetting so the sunlight doesn’t wake you up as you make the commute home.

4. Eliminate all light sources in your bedroom (without sacrificing style)

It goes without saying that keeping your room as dark as possible will help you get the best sleep during the day. My problem with this? I couldn’t find any blackout curtains that suited my decorative style. To solve this problem, I installed a double curtain rod hanging a beige blackout window panel in the back against my bedroom window and my original, more chic window panels in front. So, when I walk in my bedroom rather than unsightly blackout curtains, I see only my more decorative window coverings.

5. Consider alternative sleeping locations

Your bedroom might not be the best place in your home for you to catch some shut-eye after the night shift. With a comfy couch, cot, or futon, nearly any area of your house can be transformed into a nap pad. A family member of mine is an emergency physician and sleeps on a cot in his dark, quiet, walk-in closet post night shift. The basement also serves as somewhat of a cave where you can catch a few zzz’s light-free.

6. Sleeping immediately after your shift vs. taking time to decompress

After the night shift, my preferred method of getting to sleep is to do so immediately. Typically, I shove a few handfuls of whatever junk food is laying around into my mouth (fatigue crushes any semblance of self control I might have) and head straight to bed. At most, I utter a few words to my husband beforehand (he’s very understanding!). For me, heading straight to bed prevents me from getting caught up with doing dishes, laundry, answering emails, and thinking about my to do list.

Some of my colleagues take the opposite approach. They pull into the driveway around 6 am, pour themselves a beer and flick on the TV. Spending an hour or so decompressing helps them forget about the stress of the long night they just left behind. Taking a few minutes to relax allows them to fall asleep more easily. Try each approach to find out what works best for you.

7. Get active

It seems counterintuitive, but getting a little exercise after your nap helps you feel less tired. Exercise wakes up your mind and your body. Being outdoors in natural light helps get your body’s clock back in order. After I wake from my post night shift slumber, I always go for a jog. The first few steps are difficult but as I continue I begin to feel my mind and body come around.

8. Keep the noise level down

Every night shifter dreads the summertime. Inevitably, untimely landscapers arrive on your neighbor’s property in the middle of your nap ruining whatever REM cycle you were experiencing. If your bedroom faces a potentially noisy area of the house or outdoors, sleep elsewhere. You may even consider wearing ear plugs. A sound machine set to white noise is also quite effective in preventing bumps, thuds, and barking dogs from interrupting your much needed sleep.

9. Manage your moods

Let’s be honest. Even if you’re the best napper in the world, if you work the night shift you’re going to feel sleep deprived on occasion. Sleep deprivation is prone to make you moody, cranky, and difficult to live with. Learn to manage your moods. If you can diffuse potentially frustrating situations in your head by reminding yourself things will look better after a full night’s sleep, you can prevent (most) of those fatigue driven fights and frustrations.

Working the night shift isn’t easy but it does get better with time. Your body adjusts and you develop methods to cope with sleeping less than the norm.

How do you cope with night shift fatigue? 


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