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8 steps healthcare workers can take to improve their sleep

Written by: Dr Neil Stanley
Published on: 16 Apr 2024

Are you sleeping badly because of night-shifts, work pressures or another reason entirely? Take these 8 steps to sleep improvement.

It can be hard to prioritise yourself when you’re constantly on the go, caring for others. Finding time to look after your own health and wellbeing can, at times, feel like an impossible task.

But one simple way to give your own physical and mental wellbeing a well-deserved boost is by taking a moment to look at your sleep and identifying any ways in which you can optimise your good habits, adjusting any that might be making refreshing and restful sleep a little harder to come by.

Sleep is one of the most vital cornerstones of our health, though it’s often one of the most overlooked. It’s easy to see why, particularly when it comes to the stresses and strains that come part and parcel of working in healthcare.

Whether it’s the emotional burden of caring for others round the clock, shifting work patterns, or the intense decision-making that’s required day-in, day-out, this can all take its toll on your sleep.

People who work nights tend to sleep, on average, around two and a half hours less per night than those who work only days. That means, if you’re a night-shift worker, you could already be at a disadvantage when it comes to making the most of your sleep.

Another difference is that most people usually enjoy around 4–5 hours of post-work downtime before heading to bed if they’ve completed a day shift. This window where you have a meal, socialise or get things done around the house is often considerably shorter for those working nights.

And this isn’t the only way work can affect your sleep. Many healthcare workers have to tackle not just working nights but an irregular shifting work pattern. Being on call can mean your sleep is interrupted or fragmented more than usual and it can be difficult to get back to sleep once you’ve been disturbed.

Any advice you need to improve your sleep needs to be adapted to take into account these different schedules and the way in which they impact your life and your sleep. Taking these key steps can make sure you’re getting the most out of your sleep, whatever your work schedule.

1. Plan ahead

Getting sleep during the day if you’re part of a busy household can be tricky. To try and keep disturbances to a minimum, make sure you’re honest and open with your friends and family about your sleep schedule and give them plenty of notice. That way it may be possible to reschedule meet-ups that were planned at your house or noisy jobs, such as vacuuming while you’re trying to sleep. 

Don’t forget to turn your phone to silent and perhaps add a note to your front door, alerting delivery drivers that ‘a shift worker is sleeping here, please don’t ring the bell’.

2. Limit exposure to light

Exposure to bright light before bed can have a real impact on your sleep. To avoid this effect, try and limit how much exposure you get once you’ve finished work but before you go to sleep. You could try wearing sunglasses on your drive home from work or walking the dog later on, before you begin your next shift.

3. Watch what you eat and drink

What you eat and drink in the run up to bedtime plays a vital role in how well you sleep, whatever shifts you’re working to. But if you’re working nights, try to limit your food intake while on shift or opt for smaller, lighter meals. Of course, going to bed hungry isn’t going to help you fall asleep either, so, again, try and make healthy, light choices so that you can avoid any indigestion or discomfort when bedtime comes.

You might rely on caffeine to get you through your shifts, particularly if you’re working longer hours but the effects of it can last for several hours after you’ve finished your drink. Try to avoid caffeine too close to the end of your shift or you may find it’s still keeping you awake once you’re wanting to head to bed.

Some people find a drink of alcohol helps them to fall asleep, but it’s worth being aware that alcohol can detrimentally affect your sleep later on in the night, so is also best avoided if you want to really make the most of your sleep.

Make time to wind down

4. Make time to wind down

You may feel very sleepy once you’ve come off shift but a really good way to improve the quality of your sleep once you head to bed is to first make time to relax and wind down.

Set aside around half an hour before your bedtime for some activities you find personally relaxing. This could be taking a warm bath, reading a book or listening to your favourite music. This helps your body and mind prepare for sleep and gives you a better chance of getting to sleep easily once you call it a day (or night).

5. Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary

Our bodies are naturally synched to be awake when it’s light and asleep when it’s dark, so sleeping during the day comes with it’s own particular challenges. To try and combat this, there are certain steps you can take to make sure your bedroom is designed to help you sleep more easily during daylight hours.

You want your room to be cool, dark and quiet. Ideally, you should aim for the temperature to be around 16–20ºC with adequate ventilation, though this is just a guide and will be down to personal preference. Try and make your room as dark as possible, using blackout blinds, heavy curtains or by wearing an eye mask. 

Noise can be a real issue during the day, so it’s worth experimenting with earplugs, trying white or pink noise and making sure doors and windows are firmly shut to try and limit any exterior disturbances.

6. Listen to your body

This is particularly important if you’re on call. Many people experience sleep inertia when they first wake, a feeling of grogginess that can last anywhere between 15 minutes and two hours. But if you’re on call, you need to be extra vigilant and know your limits if you’re experiencing sleep inertia. Avoid high-risk tasks such as driving or operating machinery, if at all possible, until the effects have passed. If it’s unavoidable, you need to recognise that you’re not working optimally and adrenaline can’t make up for this shortfall in awareness.

7. Prioritise your health and wellbeing

How you feel and how you sleep are incredibly closely linked. That’s why the more you prioritise your health and wellbeing, the better you’ll sleep and vice versa. Try and maintain this healthy cycle by making time for exercise, seeing friends and enjoying a healthy diet. That way, you’re giving yourself the best chance of staying healthy in body and mind and giving yourself the best start when it comes to feeling rested and relaxed when it’s time for sleep.

8. Recognise if you need extra support

If you’ve been experiencing poor sleep three or more times a week for several weeks in a row, it’s time to speak to your own doctor. Whether it’s caused by medication you’re currently taking, an underlying condition, or something else, insomnia is a highly treatable condition and not one that you have to live with. You may benefit from a personalised, multi-step sleep plan to help you reframe your relationship with sleep.

Dr Neil Stanley – sleep expert and advisory board member at Sleepstation, an online support programme that uses cognitive behavioural therapy to help users tackle insomnia.