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Health tips for night shift workers

Here's how to make the most of your ‘shifty’ work situation

A woman working at her computer at night drinking a coffee
A woman working at her computer at night drinking a coffee

While the majority of us are sleeping soundly in our beds, more than 200,000 Australians are keeping our country running by working night shifts.

For those of us burning the midnight oil, research has indicated there are some worrying health impacts, including weight gain, high stress levels and mental health issues.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom. Here are some simple ways you can take control of your health and make the most of your ‘shifty’ work situation.

1. Sleep and recharge

During a night shift, chances are you’ll be dreaming about the moment you’re able to crawl into your comfy bed, which makes it frustrating when you finally get home and can’t fall asleep.

Our bodies work on circadian rhythms, releasing the sleep hormone melatonin when the sun goes down. So, when your body suddenly has to stay up all night (and function!), you can understand why it gets a little confused. Here are a few clever ways you can get the sleep you crave.

  • Create a place where sleep is possible at any time of day. Buy some good quality blackout blinds (hint: try a baby store) and keep your room cool.

  • Some night shift workers swear by white noise to help block outside sounds. You can guarantee Darryl next door will decide to mow the lawn the moment you put your head down after a 12-hour shift; so, try to sleep in an area of the house where you’re less likely to hear neighbourhood noise.

  • Limit your phone time. Studies have shown that the blue light emitting from your smartphone screen can inhibit sleep. Most phones have a ‘Do not disturb’ function you can turn on in advance.

  • Caffeine will get you through the night, but you should limit your coffee intake five hours before you’re hoping to go to sleep. Don’t eat anything too heavy when you get home from your shift, either.

A man asleep on the couch with his laptop open

2. Be prepared to eat well

There’s no denying that when we eat well, we function better. But anyone’s willpower will struggle when they’re low on sleep and in a high-pressure working environment. During your shift, it’s too easy to grab a sneaky bar of chocolate from a vending machine or swing into McDonald’s drive-through on your way home. Here are a few ways you can combat late night cravings.

  • Meal prep is key. Set aside a couple of hours at the start of your week to prepare a few healthy meals you can easily heat up. It’s a pain at the time but definitely worth it at 1am on a Tuesday morning when your stomach is rumbling.

  • Pack healthy snacks like nuts, fruit and anything that will keep your energy levels up without the subsequent sugar crash. Have a stash of healthy snacks you can access when you get peckish, and keep hydrated with plenty of water too.

3. Get physical!

If you’re feeling tired and drained, the last thing you might want to do is work up a sweat, but exercise could do you more good than a coffee when it comes to increasing your energy levels. Here are some easy ways you can fit it into your day (or night).

  • When you get given a new roster, work out when you can fit in between 20 and 30 minutes of light exercise a day. If you’re not a regular exerciser, take it easy on yourself and give your body some time to adjust to its new schedule.

  • While at work, stay as active as you can by going for short walks during break times. If you can, and if your co-workers aren’t going to judge you, do a few stretches or exercises like squats or walking lunges during your shift.

  • Try not to exercise early in the morning when you get home – it will likely make it harder to fall asleep.

4. Keep the black dog at bay

When you’re working night shift, it can feel like you’re living a completely different life to your loved ones. Over time, you’ll become more accustomed to the schedule, but in the meantime there are a few things you can do to prioritise your mental wellbeing.

  • Check in with friends regularly, and try to eat one meal a day with your family or housemates.

  • Debrief about your shift with your co-workers before you leave.

  • Get involved in the daily activities of home life, whether it’s doing the afternoon school pick-up, cooking dinner with your partner or housemates or helping out with home projects.

  • Make your time off count. Exercise, try new activities and get some quality catch-up time in with friends.