How To Establish A Good Sleep Schedule When You Work Irregular Hours

28 Apr ‘22
7 min
Editorial Board OpenUp
illustratie van iemand in de zorg
It’s the thing you spend a third of your life doing: sleeping. Getting sufficient and regular sleep keeps you fit and healthy. But what if you have irregular shifts because, for example, you work in healthcare? We’re about to explain how you can still get a good night’s sleep (or in some cases, a good day’s sleep).


What does a healthy sleep schedule look like?


On average, adults need between seven and eight hours sleep per night. For some it’s a little more and for others it’s a little less. As well as the duration, your quality of sleep is also important.


During the night, we shift from light sleep, to deep sleep, to REM sleep. During deep sleep, we recover. This means that a good sleeper spends plenty of time in deep sleep.


If you sleep well, you have a better memory and you can concentrate better. In the long run, good sleep reduces your risk of developing a range of diseases.


What happens when you sleep badly?


After just one bad night, you’ll often notice that you don’t feel like the best version of yourself the next day. You’re more irritable, you find it harder to concentrate, you make more mistakes, and you’re more likely to end up in accidents. Not what you want.


If you have chronic sleeping problems, your immune system stops working as well. For example, you have more chance of catching the flu. According to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, healthcare workers who work night shifts, even if it’s just one night shift a month, have a twenty percent higher chance of developing flu and respiratory symptoms. Their chance of developing diabetes and heart conditions also increases.


This is a cause of absenteeism: research by Dutch insurance providers Stichting IZZ and Movir shows that almost half of healthcare workers with sleeping problems called in sick last year and that more than one in ten are planning to leave the sector.


People with irregular working hours often struggle with sleeping problems because they have to be active when their circadian rhythm thinks it’s time to be asleep, and vice versa. And yet the actual amount of time people who work night shifts spend sleeping is the same as people who only work day shifts. Poor sleep quality is the bad guy here. The largest sleep study in history confirms this: it’s not too little, but poor sleep that causes problems.


In terms of chronic sleeping problems, we’re often looking at a vicious cycle. You sleep poorly and this makes you tense, or you do things to compensate for your tiredness (for example, drinking too much coffee), which means you’re restless by bedtime, which means you sleep badly, and on and so forth. As well as drinking too much coffee, compensatory behaviors could include exercising too little because you’re tired.


How can you improve how you sleep if you work night shifts?


For people who work night shifts, it’s even more important to focus on getting good quality sleep. The following tips can help you with this.


1. Make sure your bedroom is well equipped


If you often sleep during the day, get some blackout curtains or blinds and maybe even use a sleep mask. A quiet environment also helps. Use earplugs if necessary.


Even the color of your walls plays a role. In 2013, a hotel chain was trying to figure out how to help their guests get the best night’s sleep. A study carried out with two thousand families found that people sleep best in bedrooms with blue walls. We associate blue with the light of the ocean, which makes us feel calm and serene. This has been confirmed by scientific research.


Finally, freshly laundered sheets, a good mattress and good pillows can help you form a good sleep pattern.


💡 Read also: How To Sleep Well Even If You’re Stressed


2. Only engage in healthy compensatory behaviors


Earlier we mentioned that compensating for tiredness, for example, by drinking coffee or not exercising enough can lure you into a vicious cycle of sleeplessness. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: by making healthy choices, you can improve your biological clock, which is good for your sleep schedule.


If possible, get some daylight as soon as you wake up in the morning. Pull back the curtains or go outside. It’s good for your biological clock. Also make sure that you’re getting enough exercise, but avoid exercising in the two hours before you go to sleep. It’s advisable to exercise for at least half an hour per day. That could include walking or cycling. In addition, it’s also good to exercise intensely at least twice a week.


3. Your bed is for sleeping

Preferably only use your bed for sleeping. This way you’ll associate your bed with sleep, which makes it easier to drift off. Above all, it’s important to avoid looking at screens when you’re in bed. The blue light that emits from your television, tablet, or phone suppresses melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep cycle.


If it helps, set a reminder on your phone to stop you looking at your phone after a certain time. Many smartphones these days also have a function that filters blue light and makes your screen a warmer color. Switch on this setting around an hour and a half before you go to sleep.


If you wake up during the night, make sure not to look at your phone.


4. Have the best possible meal pattern


When you come home from a night shift, you often want to go to bed as quickly as possible. This means it’s good to prepare your meals in advance and maybe even freeze them prior to starting your night shifts.


When making your meals, ensure that they aren’t too fatty or sweet, because this can have a negative impact on how you sleep. Skipping meals can also negatively affect your sleep: hunger keeps you awake.


5. Maintain a steady sleep schedule


Your body has a biological clock, also known as your circadian rhythm. This rhythm is a cycle that lasts 24 hours. Regularity is key, if you want to keep this cycle healthy. On the days you’re working night shifts, it’s obviously not going to be possible to maintain a regular rhythm.


So, at least on the other days, try going to bed and getting up again at the same time each day – even at the weekend – and avoid taking naps. This way you’ll create some regularity on the “normal” days, which will have a positive effect on your biological clock.


If you do have to take the odd nap every now and then, try not to sleep for longer than twenty minutes. Don’t set your expectations too high: it’s not the end of the world if you don’t fall asleep. It’s enough to just close your eyes and have a rest.


6. Stick to a routine


If you follow a clear routine on normal days, for example brushing your teeth and reading a book before going to bed, then over time, this routine will help you to fall asleep. Your body will associate these steps with sleep. So, make sure to maintain this routine even while you’re working night shifts.


Do you feel like this isn’t working well for you? Then develop a second routine. This means you’ll have one for normal days and one for when you’re working night shifts. Make sure to stick to these two routines.


7. Talk about it


Are your night shifts stopping you from functioning properly? Talk to your employer about this and see if you can come up with a better shift pattern together.


One of my clients has to be on-call for a straight 24 hours once each week. He’s allowed to sleep at his place of work, the hospital, but he could be called up at any moment. He doesn’t dare sleep too deeply, which means he ends up feeling tired. He found it helpful to speak to his team leader. Together with her and with his colleagues, they’ve found a new, better way to distribute the work: his night shifts have been cut short.


So, talking has really benefited him. In addition, make sure to coordinate with your partner, family or roommates, so that they can take your schedule into account as much as possible and give you the support you need.


8. Practice acceptance


The odd bad night every now and then is just a part of life. Instead of resisting it, accept that it’s normal. Research shows that avoiding or suppressing certain emotions actually causes you to think about them more in the long run.


So, if you’re sleeping badly, it’s okay to think about it. But know that these thoughts you’re having about your poor night’s sleep are just thoughts. It helps to accept them.


What can help you with your thoughts is a technique known as cognitive defusion. This technique helps you to let go of thoughts and emotions and create some distance from them. You do this by first labelling your thoughts as thoughts.


If the thought going through your head is that you will be useless at work tomorrow because you’re tired, know that this is just a thought. It’s not the truth. Also keep in mind that you are not your thoughts.


Finally, go easy on yourself: it’s not a big deal if you have unpleasant thoughts from time to time. They’ll disappear on their own.


9. Let your mind rest


If you’re lying in bed at night, don’t focus on everything that is wrong: the bed is too cold, you made a mistake at work, you’re nervous about tomorrow. Think about what’s going well. You’re tucked safely in bed and there’s a tub of fresh strawberries waiting for you when you wake up.


To help with this, you can try keeping a gratitude journal. For example, each night before you go to sleep, write down three things that you’re thankful for. These could be big things, but they might also be small things. Perhaps a beautiful sunset or the scent of fresh bread. Mindfulness can also help you to practice gratitude.


In fact, mindfulness is always a good idea. Meditating for ten minutes before you go to sleep can help you to relax and make it easier for you to fall asleep. This audio file can help you to relax your muscles by slowly working through each of your muscle groups one by one and tightening then releasing the muscles.


Everyone has bad nights now and then. But if you think that your sleeping problems may be affecting your quality of life, then it’s probably time to take action. That’s also true if the causes of your poor night’s sleep are burnout, stress, depression, anxiety or trauma. The psychologists at OpenUp are here to help you.