Karen Kinar, a respiratory technologist who has been a shift worker for eight years, has figured out ways to help her get the sleep she needs. “I try to sleep in during the first day of nights,” says Kinar. “Then, when I come home after my next shift, I try to sleep right away for as long as I can. Hopefully it’s until dinner time, but more likely sometime in the afternoon.”

“Most data shows that shift workers sleep, on average, six hours per sleep period,” says Carolyn Schur, president of Alert@Work, a human resources company in Saskatoon. “Given that research also shows that we are healthiest and live longest when we sleep regularly between seven and eight hours per sleep period, then one can surmise that most shift workers probably have a sleep deficit,” she adds.

Our bodies are made to sleep at night and wake during the day. But when our work requires us to do the opposite, sometimes our bodies resist.

Respiratory therapist Karen Kinar has worked shift work for eight years.

“There is no perfect formula for how we adjust our daily lives to cope with working night shifts,” says Kinar. What may work for one person will not be suitable for another. “After speaking to a few co-workers the differences in what each person does to adjust their sleep habits became very obvious to me.”

Some co-workers told Kinar when they start their first night they will nap in the afternoon for a couple of hours to prepare for the night. Some will carry on like it’s a normal day without any naps then stay up all night. While others will try to stay up as late as they can the night before so they sleep in late the day of their first night.

The general principle in changing from nights to days is to minimize the amount of sleep that you get after your last night so that you can go to bed at a time closer to your regular night time bedtime. “You will be very tired on this day, but you will more quickly adjust to a regular night time sleep routine,” says Schur.

Some shift workers have more difficulty adjusting their sleep patterns and, as a result, build up a greater sleep debt. “Those who are well-adapted and have schedules that reflect best practice will likely be getting at least the six hours of sleep that they need. Those who are not well-adapted and have schedules that decrease the opportunity for sleep will be much more sleep deprived. They may only get three or four hours of sleep per sleep period.”

Another problem is the change in eating habits. Kinar says “One main problem with night shifts is that you can get some of the worse cravings for unhealthy food at 3:00 a.m., and it isn’t always easy to find a healthy alternative if you haven’t brought something from home.” Schur suggests having a supply of nuts, yogurt, fruit, cheese and crackers on hand for a quick pick-me-up.

If you have trouble staying awake at night, drinking coffee is ok, but limit consumption to no later than 3 a.m. so as not to disrupt sleep. Schur says the foods listed for healthy night-time eating will also help to maintain alertness because they are primarily protein based.

“Everyone is different in what works for them and really it takes a few times to figure out the right formula,” says Kinar.