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Night shift work

Is working a night shift screwing up your sleep and making you sick? Make sure your working hours are legal and that you're getting the rest you need.

Crazy night shift worker

What do you mean I look like Gollum?

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What hours can I do in night shift work?

Night shift work means:

  • You’re working more than three hours between the hours of 11pm and 6am
  • You cannot work more than eight hours of night work in a 24-hour period on average
  • You must have at least two days off a fortnight – that usually means a maximum of 48 hours work a week
  • You’re entitled to at least a 20-minute break during a six-hour shift

There’s no ‘opt-out’ from these limits. You must adhere to them, and so must your boss.

Is night shift work bad for me?

We’re not going to lie to you. Yes, it is. No matter how long you work nights for, your body will never adapt to being awake when it’s dark; we need the sun and you’ll always be resisting the urge to sleep.

Occasional night shift work shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’re doing it over a long period of time there’s a greater risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Not forgetting that the disruption to your sleep patterns can put you at a higher risk of being in a car accident.

You’re entitled to a health assessment before you start night shift work, and regular health questionnaires as you go on. If your health is affected, your boss should try – if possible – to move you onto daytime work.

Sleep problems and working nights

Night shifts mess with your sleep schedule and you may find it hard to get the rest you need. Following these tips should help.

  • Establish a sleep schedule. Try and go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
  • Don’t eat too much before going to bed – especially spicy or fatty foods
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine a couple of hours before bedtime
  • Put up blackout curtains and use earplugs to help you sleep during the day
  • Use your bedroom for sleeping and sex only – no computer, no TV, and no work
  • Avoid strenuous exercise just before you try and sleep
  • Wind down after your shift before you attempt to sleep. Either read a book, go for a short walk, listen to music, or take a warm bath
  • Don’t use sleeping pills for more than two weeks as they’re addictive. Talk to your GP if you feel you’re dependant on them.

Staying awake on a night shift

Twilight is the hardest time to stay awake, so at around 2 or 3am make sure you have enough stimulating work to do and follow these tips for staying alert.

  • Don’t get too comfortable or too warm
  • Go for a short walk in the fresh air ?- rather than relying on stimulants – to keep yourself awake
  • Keep the lighting bright
  • Exercise before your shift to give you more energy and keep you alert
  • Make sure it isn’t too quiet – put the radio on or some music, or chat to colleagues

Photo of night shift worker by Shutterstock

Next Steps

  • Acas offers free advice about everything to do with employment law. 08457 47 47 47
  • To find information and local services go to NHS choices.
    • Got a question about friends, dating, love or family life? Ask one of our trained advisors. This service is free and totally confidential.
    • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
    • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Holly Bourne

Updated on 30-Jul-2014

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