How to Work Night Shifts and Stay Healthy

PowerDMS offers insights on how to work the night shift and stay healthy. Get tips to maintain your physical and mental wellness while working the night shift.

May 23, 2023

Article Highlights:

Teaching responders how to work night shifts and stay healthy is a priority for public safety leaders. First responders frequently work nights. It’s unavoidable. But without healthy habits, night shifts can cause serious physical and mental health issues. 

Night shifts disrupt sleep patterns, leading to sleep deprivation and an increased risk of chronic health conditions. They can also increase stress and fatigue and contribute to anxiety and depression. Night shifts also make it harder to connect with friends and family and can lead to social isolation.

Night shifts may be a necessity, but physical and mental health issues don’t have to be. Providing resources and support to manage the challenges of shift work can help workers perform their jobs effectively while maintaining their physical and mental health.

It also equips first responders to better serve their communities.

This article covers several tips on how to work the night shift and stay healthy, including how to prioritize sleep, optimize nutrition, stay active, manage stress, and remain social. We'll also look at the physical and psychological effects of working the night shift to help you better understand the toll it can take on first responders.

1. Prioritize sleep

Prioritizing sleep is essential for staying healthy while working nights. Good sleep contributes to your physical and mental well-being and helps regulate your mood, alertness, and cognitive function. 

People who lose sleep or are seriously fatigued are more likely to make critical mistakes. The CDC has reported that ". .  . responders who worked evening/night shifts were about four times more likely to report depressive symptoms than those working the day shift."

If you're beginning to work overnights, it's important to learn how to adjust to a night shift. It's not just a matter of sleeping during the day. There are a few important steps to take in establishing a daily routine for night shift workers.

Helping responders get good sleep should be the highest priority during night shift work. A lack of sleep can lead to health problems, like fatigue, depression, and weight gain, as well as increase the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Learning how to work a night shift and stay healthy all starts right here: sleep must be the top priority.

To start, set a consistent sleep schedule, even on days off. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule helps establish healthy sleep patterns. Even on days off, it's important to try to maintain the same sleep schedule to help regulate your body's natural sleep cycle.

You can do this by creating a sleep-conducive environment that promotes good sleep. Ensure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. Avoid using smartphones, tablets, or laptops before bed, as the blue light they emit can disrupt sleep. Most devices have a nighttime setting that cuts most of the blue light. Also, avoid watching TV, especially stimulating movies or the news.

Stop consuming caffeine several hours before you sleep. Caffeine can interfere with sleep, so switch to decaffeinated drinks or herbal tea during the back half of your shift. It seems counterintuitive because caffeine helps us stay awake. But it can disrupt your sleep pattern, and cause an unhealthy cycle in which you’re relying on more caffeine instead of adequate sleep. 

Create a relaxation routine that helps you wind down and signal to your body that it's time to sleep. Read a book, take a warm bath, meditate, practice yoga, or listen to calming music. Choose whatever works for you and make that a regular, nightly/daily routine as you get ready for bed. Making a consistent daily routine for night shift workers signals to your body that it's time to sleep and helps you drop off at the right time.

2. Optimize nutrition

Learning how to work night shift and stay healthy also means learning to eat well. Eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones can have a major impact on your responders' overall health. Even while they're working the regular day shift, they should practice good nutrition. This is even more important when they're on overnights.

Proper nutrition contributes to better sleep and stress management. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will reduce stress levels and help promote better sleep. They help support the body's natural rhythms and help regulate stress hormones. Junk food, while tasty, can actually disrupt sleep and cause more stress.

Plan and prepare meals in advance to ensure you have healthy meals available and ready to go, even during busy shifts. If you plan and prepare your meals for the week, including snacks, you won't have to rely on fast food or vending machine options. You can still enjoy them on occasion but don't make them your actual meal plan.

Create an eating schedule and stick to it. By eating on a consistent schedule, you're not stuck with whatever's available at 3 a.m. It ensures you have healthier options rather than relying on whatever's available or open in the middle of the night. An eating schedule also helps regulate your body's natural rhythms and leads to better digestion.

Buy healthy snacks in bulk to eat during a shift. That can help prevent overeating and avoid unhealthy options. Stock up on nuts, seeds, fresh fruits, and vegetables, and keep them on hand during your shift.

Limit sugar and caffeine. They can disrupt sleep patterns and increase stress levels, so limit their intake. Instead, drink water or herbal tea. Plus, sugary drinks and caffeinated drinks are diuretics, which means you put out more than you take in, which can lead to dehydration.

Stay hydrated. This helps you flush out your system, keeps your joints lubricated, delivers nutrients from your healthy foods to your cells, and keeps your organs working properly. It also contributes greatly to your sleep quality and cognition.

3. Stay active

Staying active is important to maintaining optimal health while working night shifts. By prioritizing exercise, responders can ensure they're at their best, both physically and mentally. Making physical activity part of the daily routine for night shift workers helps regulate their sleep habits and keeps them more physically and mentally alert on the overnight shifts.

Exercise helps manage stress and regulate sleep. According to the CDC, a moderate amount of exercise – such as brisk walking 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week – can have significant benefits for physical and mental health. They also recommend muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week for all major muscle groups.

Maintain a consistent exercise routine, even on days off, to establish healthy habits and improve overall fitness. Adjust the intensity of your exercise habits if necessary, just so long as you continue to maintain consistency.

Work out before you start your shift, not after. It can give you a "win" to start your day, increase your energy levels, and improve your focus. Try and avoid working out before you sleep as it can wake you up and disrupt sleep patterns.

Get out of your squad car or rig and walk, stretch, or move whenever possible. First responders spend a lot of time sitting, which can be detrimental to your health. Walking and moving around can prevent muscle stiffness, improve circulation, and increase energy levels. This is true whether you're working days or nights.

Be creative with your exercise routines. It can be a challenge to fit exercise time into your day, so be creative by incorporating short bursts of activity throughout the day, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or doing squats and lunges during downtime.

4. Manage stress

Learning how to work a night shift and stay healthy also means learning how to manage stress. Finding coping mechanisms to reduce stress can reduce the wear and tear on your body. Responders who can manage their stress tend to perform well on night shifts and are less likely to burn out.

Exercise, nutrition, and sleep work in tandem to help with stress management. A regular exercise routine, healthy eating habits, and adequate sleep all help to reduce stress levels and promote overall health. By practicing all three, you have a better method of coping with stress related to your work, especially if you're working the night shift.

Use stress management exercises throughout a shift. It's important that first responders have a number of stress management exercises to turn to. This can include deep breathing, meditation, visualization techniques, or taking a quick break to walk, stretch, or move around. Check out our ebook, Three Mental Health Exercises That Help Officers Manage Stress and Avoid Burnout, for easy-to-use stress management exercises. 

Use a routine that helps disengage from stress. Just like a pre-sleep routine, it's important to have a routine that helps you disengage after difficult calls or incidents. This can include talking with a trusted colleague, taking a short break, reading, or listening to music.

Take a walk at the end of your shift to wind down and transition from work to personal time. Walking helps to clear the mind, improve circulation, and promote relaxation, all of which can be beneficial for managing stress. Plus, it's already a form of exercise, so you can include this in your regular exercise routine.

5. Remain social

Learning how to work night shift and stay healthy also means keeping in touch with family and friends and maintaining your emotional support system. One of the psychological effects of working night shifts is feeling isolated. Staying social is often one of the most overlooked night shift tips but also one of the most important. 

Working night shifts can feel disruptive and isolating, as responders are awake and working while many others are sleeping or off duty. They don't get to see their family or friends, only seeing each other when one is leaving work, and the other is going. This can increase anxiety and depression and cause relationships with loved ones and friends to suffer.

Staying social is key to maintaining good mental health. Regular social interactions can help to reduce stress levels, improve mood, and boost overall happiness.

Regularly communicate with family and friends. It's important for first responders to maintain regular communication with family and friends, particularly during periods of extended night shift work. Set regular times to call or meet with loved ones to help to maintain those important social connections. Make plans for days off or to meet briefly before or after a shift.

Make an effort to bond with colleagues who are working similar shifts. This can help build a sense of camaraderie and support among colleagues. This is especially important for police officers, firefighters, and EMTs who rely on one another for support and backup.

Make time for hobbies you enjoy before a shift. This can help you boost your mood and promote a general sense of well-being. This could include exercising, reading, listening to music, or engaging in another creative pursuit, like making art, assembling models, collecting, woodworking, or even gardening.

Final thoughts

Self-care for night shift workers can have a positive effect on their health and well-being. Prioritizing sleep, optimizing nutrition, exercising, managing stress, and maintaining social connections are all night shift tips that contribute to a person’s overall health. 

Leaders can support first responders' health by providing resources and healthy meal options, encouraging regular exercise, sharing tips for working night shift, and creating a culture that prioritizes health. Teaching staff how to work night shifts and stay healthy can improve job satisfaction and performance, enabling them to better handle challenges and provide better service to their community.

Public safety scheduling software can help leaders schedule staff so they're best able to function during overnight shifts, ensure everyone divides overnight work equally, and no one spends too much time working night shifts.

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