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Sleep expert: top tips for night shift workers


We talk to sleep expert, Derk-Jan Dijk from Surrey University Sleep Centre, about how best to fit in down-time when working the night shift

If you ever have problems nodding off after the night shift, you’re in good company. The body clock finds it difficult to adjust to sleeping during daylight and those working shifts get far fewer hours of shut eye a week than their day-working colleagues.

Professor of sleep at Surrey University’s Sleep Centre Derk-Jan Dijk has been studying the between the sheets science of sleep since 1983. He has studied astronauts in space sleeping in shift patterns, and has determined that those working shifts get one and a half to two hours less of sleep than those attempting to kip at night.

“If you work away on an oil rig, and always do the same shift pattern, your body will adjust because you’ll do it for months at a time,” he says. “But for nurses the problem can be moving between socially acceptable sleep/wake patterns and unacceptable patterns. Working on the night shift for four nights, and then switching back to days is not enough to shift your body clock.”

In his role he looks at how melatonin, pharmacological intervention and hypnotics can all influence sleep. He has proven how the use of artificial lighting in the evenings upsets natural body rhythms and leads to disturbed sleep, and is now developing of new forms of lighting that are more sympathetic.

“artificial lighting in the evenings upsets natural body rhythms and leads to disturbed sleep”

“When trying to sleep, you need to make the room as dark and quiet as possible,” he says. “And don’t think that all the sleep has to be in one block. You can get two chunks of three hours if that works for you.”

People want to be given a definitive answer as to how much sleep everyone should get,” he says, “but the truth is that it varies from person to person and as you get older. We all know teens can lie in bed all day – older adults need fewer hours of sleep. But being in bed longer isn’t always better, sometimes it’s as bad as not being in bed long enough.”

One thing that he is certain of is that getting less sleep than you should can lead to health problems, often as serious as heart attacks and diabetes.

“getting less sleep than you should can lead to health problems, often as serious as heart attacks and diabetes”

“Our experience is that sleep problems aren’t usually mentioned to GPs, they are mentioned as secondary to other health concerns when a patient makes an appointment so we can’t correlate sleep and disease – but we know a lack of sleep will play a part in mental and physical wellbeing.”

Sleeplessness or insomnia troubles up to one in three people in the UK at some point in their lives, and Professor Dijk believes that stress plays a major part in that inability to sleep.

His solution is to get out of bed. “If you are just lying awake, being worried about not being able to sleep, it doesn’t make sense to just stay there,” he says. “Get up and do something else for 20 minutes, and then try again.”

The other thing he says people get wrong in their approach to sleep is to try and “catch up” after a poor night’s sleep. “This is not a good idea. If you give yourself too much sleep opportunity, the pressure to get to sleep dissipates and you will be more easily awoken by your arousal systems. If you restrict your time in bed to five or six hours, you will get better quality sleep.”

When it comes to improving your quality of sleep – there is a lot you can do before you even hit the hay according to Professor Dijk. “We all know the obvious things such as avoiding caffeine later in the day, but as you get older, drinking alcohol at any point during the day will affect your sleep quality. A few drinks at lunchtime or early afternoon, even, can disrupt your sleep in the second part of the night so he recommends you lay off the booze if you’re having trouble sleeping.

So – if you want to sleep soundly, you know what to do.


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Readers' comments (4)

  • I find the following useful
    Absolute darkness, ear plugs.
    Wear sunglasses on the way home.
    I try to keep bedroom cool around 16/17degrees. I don't drink caffeine through my shift. My phone stays on vibrate. I allocate time in my diary to deal with others tasks so doesnot interfere with day time sleeping. If I'm not expecting anybody I take batteries out of door bell (remember to replace)... Worked consistent nights for a year or so with out a problem: difficult with rotating patterns, it be grand if nurses who wanted to work nights could stay on them, especially insomniacs like me...

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  • I've worked nights and even two full time shifts and it is not the best health wise. Check out this article on ways to reduce risk of shift disorder -

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  • I have worked nights for the past 8 years and have to say, I must just be very lucky. I can fall asleep in minutes after a nightshift, according to my children. They can be busy listening to music or watching the TV whilst I sleep. If I am woken up, I can get back to sleep no problem. If, however, I have a busy day and am not due in work for a day or two, sleep deprivation makes me quite hyper and I tend to make big purchases. Very poor rational thinking I find.

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  • I've had dreadful trouble sleeping after night shifts for years: nothing works for me. At the moment, I'm trying some of the more unusual sleep patterns suggested for night duty nurses in this article:

    It's interesting, to say the least, but time will tell.

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