Working overnight or throughout the late evening is becoming more commonplace in our global, 24-hour society. More than 15 million Americans are shift workers, many of them in hospitals, on police forces, as emergency responders and in transportation or manufacturing industries. Working odd hours can have advantages—extra pay or the chance to spend time with your kids—but it can also impact your health.
The primary problem for shift workers is a lack of sleep. Our bodies naturally follow a 24-hour pattern, called the circadian rhythm, which regulates cycles of sleepiness, wakefulness, body temperature, hormones, heart rate and other body functions. Trying to reset this pattern by working into the wee hours and sleeping during the day often results in a lack of sleep and problems like fatigue, irritability, anxiety and depression. In addition, shift workers are more likely to suffer from stomach problems, menstrual irregularities, colds, flu, weight gain, high blood pressure, workplace accidents and car crashes.
If you work irregular hours, try lessening the negative impact they may be having on your health with these tips:
- Make sleep a priority. Stick to the same sleep schedule, even on your days off. Use room-darkening shades or blinds, wear a sleep mask and ear plugs or run a fan for white noise. Wind down before sleep by taking a warm bath or reading. Take a 30-minute nap before your shift.
- Eat healthier. You’ll have to brown-bag it if all you can find during your shift comes from vending machines or fast-food restaurants. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoid large, heavy meals. If you drink caffeinated beverages, have them before or during the early part of your shift.
- Exercise. Just 20 minutes of aerobic activity on most days will help you stay more alert on the job. Work out before your shift and use your breaks to take a lap around your building or to shoot hoops. Enlist a co-worker to exercise with you.
If being a nine-to-fiver is not for you—whether by choice or necessity—you can’t afford to skimp on sleep and healthy habits. If you continue to have trouble sleeping or feeling your best, talk to your doctor. He or she can recommend lifestyle changes or treatment to keep you healthy and alert while the rest of the world is sleeping.