Vets Now's resident health and wellbeing expert, Laura, gives her verdict on how to stay fit, healthy and alert when working night shifts
Good quality sleep is vital. It may sound obvious but from the outset working nights will mean you need to sleep during the day. As everyone knows, sleep is vital for maintaining health and wellbeing. We tend to function less well when we don’t get enough good quality sleep (reaching REM). Not getting enough sleep, or only getting poor quality sleep (not reaching REM), can lead to lack of concentration, poor decision making, changes in mood and even health problems, including reduced immunity. In a nutshell, make sure you get enough good quality sleep.
Get into a routine. It doesn't matter whether you hit the sack during the day or night, what counts is that you establish a routine. Get a pattern going for when you’re working and one for when you’re off and your body clock will soon be setting itself. Aim to have at least five hours quality sleep at the same time every day or night.
If you’re a lark, make the transition as early as you can. How well you cope with working nights depends on a number of factors. There are two types of sleepers, the owl and the lark. If you’re an owl, you usually go to bed late and get up late, so night work will be less of a problem than it is for larks, who prefer to get up early and go to bed early. It’s worthwhile identifying which type you are and then making changes as early as possible to make the transition easier.
Enjoy your days. Make the most of your time off. Once you’ve caught up on your sleep do what you enjoy most. This might be as simple as sitting down as a family having a meal, catching up with friends for a coffee, going to the gym or cinema, or perhaps even attending those concerts at your children’s school that you had to miss before.
Eat well. This is sound advice for anyone but it’s particularly important if you work out of hours. It’s really important to consider the timing and quality of your meals. For example, try planning them to help you stay alert at work and relax when you need to. If you do have trouble getting to sleep try lavender, passion flower, hops, orange blossom, Scot’s pine aroma therapy oils, or camomile, green or peppermint teas or, of course, a milky drink.
Exercise regularly. Try to spend at least 30 minutes a day doing physical activities. It’s also worth taking moderate exercise before starting work as this may increase alertness during your night shift. On the other hand, it’s best to avoid going to the gym on the way home or this may affect your ability to sleep.
Keep socialising. Working patterns that differ from the routines of friends and family can leave you feeling a little isolated so it’s really important you make the effort not to lose contact with them. It’s also worthwhile making sure your friends and family are aware of the shifts you’re working so they can include you when planning social events.
Avoid stimulants and sedatives. Night workers have been known to turn to stimulants such as coffee, caffeine drinks and even cigarettes to keep them awake, and sleeping pills to help them sleep. It really is best to avoid these, or in the case of caffeine, use in moderation, as they only have a short term effect on alertness and may become addictive.
Try a banana, marmite and lettuce sandwich. Believe it or not this is renowned as the Rolls Royce of sandwiches for out-of-hours workers. It’s because all three ingredients contain natural substances that help induce sleep.
Drink plenty water. Dehydration is usually caused by not drinking enough fluid to replace what you have lost. The imbalance can play havoc with the body and can reduce mental and physical performance. Just remember to avoid drinking too much just before you go to sleep as this can present its own problems.
Top up on vitamin D. Vitamin D is vital to help keep healthy bones, teeth and muscles. But the sun is the main source for most people and if you’re working nights, particularly in the winter months, there’s every chance you’ll not get enough. Thankfully, it’s found naturally in some foods including pumpkin seeds, oily fish, cereals, tofu and eggs. You can also get it from the chemist as a supplement. It’s worth checking your levels before you start shift work.
Talk about your shifts. Talk to the people closest to you about the shifts you are working. If they understand the problems you are facing it will be easier to for them to be supportive and considerate. You might even want to discuss your work pattern with your nearest neighbours so they don’t interrupt your sleep
Remember you’re not alone. It’s worth remembering that hundreds of colleagues across Vets Now are in the same situation as you are. Many of them have been working out of hours for years and can offer support and advice. Who knows? They may even become good friends as you share stories at 2am.
Eat foods with serotonin. Serotonin is essentially a brain chemical that’s been linked to depression and sleep disorders such as insomnia. Eating foods high in serotonin, such as peanuts, watermelon, shellfish, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds and turkey, should help maintain good mental health.
Prepare to sleep well. It’s amazing how many things can interrupt your sleep during the day. Plan ahead by fitting black-out blinds and investing in sleep aids such as earplugs and eye masks. Before you nod off switch off anything that might disturb you, close doors, and put up a notice asking people to refrain from ringing your doorbell. And use your days off to get in some extra “recovery” sleep.
Take power naps. Try to have a power nap of between 20 and 40 minutes on your break. One good tip is to have a cup of caffeinated coffee just before you put your head down. That way you’ll wake up at the same time the caffeine is beginning to kick in. It’s worth avoiding this after 12am though, as it might impact on your sleep when you get home.
Make arrangements for those who depend on you. Working nights suits different people for different reasons. But life can become a juggling act if you don’t prepare for it properly. One thing you’ll need to consider is how you will look after the people or pets in your care while you sleep during the day.
Plan well ahead. It’s a cliché but if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. If you’re due to start working out of hours make sure you plan ahead to prepare meals, perhaps making up several in advance and freezing them. It’s also worth preparing a schedule for shopping, laundry and other errands. If you need to arrange appointments consider these for days when you are off or after you have slept. This will reduce any unnecessary interruptions to your sleep routine.
Speak to your doctor. If you’re concerned working nights may affect any medical condition you have, it’s important you consult your doctor. You can also seek advice from Vets Now’s dedicated health, safety and wellbeing team.
If you’d like to find out more about our health and wellbeing programme please speak to a member of our recruitment team on 01383 807 547.