A pathway to a healthier you

Trying too hard to sleep

Healthy sleep helps us feel well, is good for mental health, body weight, and assists in preventing infections and chronic illnesses. Good sleep can feel elusive when you’re working a varying shift pattern from one day to the next.  

It is possible, however, to have a better experience working a nonstandard schedule. The key is to sleep enough, feel supported by family and friends and be able to manage activities and demands flexibly. 

Rotating shifts – a familiar pattern

Jeevika is a registered nurse who works in a busy surgical ward. She works several changing shifts every week including earlies and lates, and rotates onto the night shift for one week out of every four. This is a common working pattern for many nurses and midwives, and can make it hard to get good quality regular sleep. 

Jeevika found it took her over a week to go back to a regular sleeping pattern after coming off a week of night duty. 

“I wake in the middle of the night for 2, 3, 4 hours, and often sleep in on days off until 10 or 11 to try to catch up on lost sleep.”  

Responding to shiftwork – disrupted sleep

Frank Cahill, a psychologist who specialises in sleep, tells us that “Shift work can be very disruptive to our sleeping pattern. People will vary in their response to shift work and their sleep. Some adapt well when transitioning from earlies to afternoons then to night shift. Others can struggle. Some struggle coming off nights and trying to sleep during the day while others struggle sleeping at night after rotating off night shift”.  

Trying too hard to sleep

We can try too hard to get enough, restful sleep. Frank Cahill tells us ‘sleep effort’ can lead to insomnia or difficulties with sleep.

“When we are struggling to fall asleep or return to sleep after waking during the night there is a big tendency to engage in sleep effort. Sleep effort occurs when we become aware of our wakefulness, typically by clock watching, and then you trying to get back to sleep.

“If you find yourself engaged in sleep effort… get out of bed for a short break until you feel ready to return to bed. When you do return to bed it is important to focus on resting knowing that you will eventually drift off to sleep. You may have to repeat getting out of bed on a bad night. Checking the time throughout the night is usually not helpful and can make getting back to sleep worse”. 

Resuming ‘life’ after night shift

“For many, re-establishing a good night’s sleep after finishing night duty can be difficult”, says Frank. 

“The general rule is go to bed in the morning after coming off your last night shift and limit your sleep to 4-5 hours while going to bed as late as you can later that night. This should maintain sufficient sleep pressure to help you fall asleep at night. If you are struggling to fall asleep at night, you may consider taking melatonin 1mg about one hour before your bedtime for the next three nights while you re-establish your normal nighttime sleeping pattern. Try not to sleep in or catch up on sleep. Maintaining a consistent sleep pressure will help get your sleep back into a regular pattern.” 

Lessening the load when working night shifts

Jeevika found it very hard to juggle personal and family commitments when she was working night shift. Seek support from your family or friends/housemates when you are working night duty. Ask for extra help with responsibilities, so you can focus on getting enough sleep.  

Moira Jung, CEO of the Sleephealth Foundation, shares with us how important it is to lessen what you do when working night shifts:

“Try to remember that you can’t be all things to all people whilst on nights. Too many people feel that they can still do all the cooking, shopping and school drop offs and pickups, but mostly if you try and do everything you simply have no time to sleep and become too wired and hyped up to sleep well”.  

The personality profile of carers such as nurses/midwives often goes with sleep problems…Having high and demanding standards for ourselves at work might mean we start to treat our sleep the same way…those who are perfectionists and start to not sleep well…can see it as a sense of failing which increases stress and keeps the vicious cycle going
Moira Jung, psychologist and CEO of the Sleephealth Foundation