General strategies for reducing fatigue
Below is a list of general evidence-based strategies
for reducing fatigue when working night shifts.
Select the tips that suit your lifestyle,
and see which ones work best for you.
Before night shifts
- Sleep in as late as you can in the morning (McKenna & Wilkes, 2018).
Shift workers tend to sleep less than other workers, so try to accumulate as much sleep as possible before a set of night shifts (Åkerstedt & Wright, 2009).
- Nap when tired for as long as you can, to minimise sleep debt.
Napping in the late afternoon is ideal (2pm and 6pm), since most people find it easiest to fall asleep at that time (McKenna & Wilkes, 2018).
- Seek bright light exposure in the evening to increase alertness. Spend time outside or near a window (e.g., for 30 minutes), or use a portable light therapy lamp. Ideally the lamp will be rated at 5,000 to 10,000 lux in brightness (which it will advertise on the box).
Bright light exposure can immediately increase alertness, and evening light exposure may shift circadian rhythms to improve adaptation to night shifts (Badia et al., 1991; Daurat et al., 1993).
- Eat a complete meal and pack light, healthy snacks to eat if hungry during your shift.
Although the evidence is scarce, night work seems to be associated with poorer metabolic functioning, and reduced food consumption during the night may help improve performance (Grant et al., 2017; Gupta et al., 2017).
During night shifts
- Consume caffeine as needed, 20 to 45 minutes before its desired effect (McHill, Smith, & Wright, 2014).
- Avoid caffeine at least 3 hours before bed (or more if possible; McKenna & Wilkes, 2018).
Caffeine affects people differently and has alerting effects that may disturb sleep if consumed too close to bedtime (McHill, Smith, & Wright, 2014).
- Drink as much water as possible.
To maximise water consumption, bring a water bottle and drink before you get thirsty. Even mild dehydration can result in cognitive impairments (Adan, 2012).
- Nap if sleepy (Ruggiero & Redeker, 2014).
Even short naps (10 minutes) can improve alertness and cognitive performance (Tietzel & Lack, 2002). For naps longer than 30 minutes, try to wake up at least 15 to 20 minutes before returning to work to reduce sleep inertia (Hilditch, Centofanti, Dorrian, & Banks, 2016).
- Try to remain active and engaged (Eastman et al., 1995; McKenna & Wilkes, 2018).
Physical activity during the first half of the night shift may influence circadian rhythms and improve alertness (Eastman et al., 1995).
After night shifts
- Unless driving, wear dark sunglasses in the morning until you go to bed (Crowley, Lee, Tseng, Fogg, & Eastman, 2003). If driving, consider blue-blocking sunglasses (i.e., orange or brown lenses).
Sunglasses may improve circadian alignment as part of larger interventions to control light exposure (Smith & Eastman, 2012). Few studies have looked at their unique effectiveness. For example, wearing blue blocking sunglasses in the morning improved the sleep of a small sample of permanent night shift workers (Sasseville, Benhaberou-Brun, Fontaine, Charon, & Hébert, 2009). Additionally, wearing sunglasses can reduce the alerting effects of sunlight before bed.
- If you have to drive but feel too sleepy, get light exposure before driving or take a brief nap (under 20 minutes).
Bright light exposure after a night shift has been shown to improve driving performance in a lab setting (Weisgerber, Nikol, & Mistlberger, 2017). Cold air, mild to moderate exercise, and turning on the radio tend to only improve alertness for about 15 minutes (Horne & Reyner, 1999).
- Eat a light and low-protein breakfast (e.g., oatmeal with fruit) to facilitate digestion and minimise sleep disturbances (Boelsma et al., 2010; Grant et al., 2017; Gupta et al., 2017).
High-protein meals are typically harder to digest and can negatively influence sleep quality.
- Avoid screens (e.g., phones, tablets) before going to bed. If using screens, reduce the brightness.
Reading on a tablet compared to a book suppressed melatonin, increased arousal, and reduced the time spent in rapid-eye-movement sleep. Participants also reported feeling sleepier the next day (Chang, Aeschbach, Duffy, & Czeisler, 2015).
Changing the colour warmth (e.g., using the “Night Shift” mode on iPhones) has little impact on sleep (Duraccio et al., 2021) but may be more comfortable.
- De-stress if needed (e.g., read a book).
Acute stress can increase sympathetic arousal and reduce effective sleep. Some relaxation techniques like worry lists, scheduled worrying time, and meditation have been shown to improve sleep (Irish, Kline, Gunn, Buysse, & Hall, 2015).
- Try to follow a consistent bedtime routine (Knauth & Hornberger, 2003).
- When sleeping:
- Wear a sleep mask or use blackout curtains.
- Consider ear plugs or something to drown out noises (e.g., a fan or white noise generator).
Noise increases autonomic arousal, which results in lighter sleep (Irish et al., 2015).
- Sleep in a cool environment to help initiate sleep (Gilbert, van den Heuvel, Ferguson, & Dawson, 2004).
- Silence your phone (not just vibrate mode) to minimise distractions.