Sleeping for Shift Work

Volume 2, Issue 3

Brittney Bernardoni, MD

Spring is in the air, the clocks have sprung forward, and each day has slightly more sunshiny hours than the last... but you are on a string of nights, trying to avoid the siren’s call of a verdant spring day and get some much needed rest. Sleep plays a key role in your mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing and allows you to perform at your clinical best. One landmark study demonstrated that after only 17-19 hours without sleep, subjects’ performance was equivalent or worse than those with a BAC of 0.05% and after 28 hours performance was similar to a BAC of 0.1%.[1]

Whether you are working days, nights, or somewhere in between, getting adequate restful sleep can be challenging. However, even if your schedule doesn’t permit increasing your hours of sleep per night, by incorporating some of the basic sleep hygiene principles below you may be able to significantly improve your sleep quality.

Tips for Sleeping during Shift Work:

  1. Beds are for sleeping, not working
  2. Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool
  3. Avoid using/looking at electronic devices near bedtime[2,3] (or at least limit you exposure to blue light[4] with iPhone night shift or f.lux)
  4. Decrease or even avoid evening alcohol consumption[5]
  5. Try sleep focused meditation
  6. Get some daily exercise (but not right before bed[6])
  7. Expose yourself to bright light when waking up, and avoid before bed
  8. Shift switching? Take a late afternoon nap for at least 2 hours[7]
  9. Can’t sleep after 30 min, get up and do something else (see tip 5)


  1. Williamson et al. (2000) Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication Occup Environ Med 57(10):649-55.
  2. Cajochen et al. (2011) Evening exposure to a light-emitting diodes (LED)-backlit computer screen affects circadian physiology and cognitive performance J Appl Physiol 110(5):1432-1438.
  3. Fossum et al. (2014) The Association Between Use of Electronic Media in Bed Before Going to Sleep and Insomnia Symptoms, Daytime Sleepiness, Morningness, and Chronotype Behav Sleep Med 12(5):343-357.
  4. Kozaki et al (2005) Effect of color temperature of light sources on slow-wave sleep J Physiol Anthropol Appl Human Sci 24(2): 183-186.
  5. Ebrahim et al. (2013) Alcohol and Sleep I: Effects on Normal Sleep Alcohol Clin Exp Res 37(4):539-549.
  6. Youngstedt et al. (2016) Circadian Phase-Shifting Effects of Bright Light, Exercise, and Bright Light + Exercise J Circadian Rhythms 26(14):2.
  7. Royal College of Physicians (2006) Working the night shift: preparation, survival and recovery a guide for junior doctors.