How to Create a Recovery Routine for Shift Workers

6th September 2019

Recovery routine for shift workers

When working nights, we effectively have to reset our body clock to work to the new time zone we find ourselves in, just as we would do with jet lag.

Think of shift workers and you’re likely to conjure up images of night shifts in a factory, doctors and nurses in a hospital, perhaps even bar staff and the changing patterns of their work. But technology and the culture of working late into the night means we’re all guilty of pulling the occasional night shift.

Shift workers have to manage the challenges of a daytime family life with their work, so in effect the challenge they face is just the same as that of the doctor, nurse or factory worker: how to manage a lifestyle that is completely at odds with our body clock.

If you’re working at night, when your body naturally wants to produce melatonin and put you in a sleep state, you are bypassing the sleep window where urge and need collide. When you come home in the morning, with the sun up and your sleep pressure high but your circadian urge dipping, you are going to struggle to achieve the quality of sleep you would get at night.

When working nights, we effectively have to reset our body clock to work to the new time zone we find ourselves in, just as we would do with jet lag. With the R90 Technique you can look at using light in the form of daylight lamps and dawn simulators along with our windows of time – at night, the midday and early-evening slots, breaks every 90 minutes and pre- and post-sleep routines – to adjust to our new timetable. If you are a PM chronotype (evening person), this shift is going to be easier.

So, when coming home in the morning after a shift, don’t go straight to bed. That’s not what people working in the day do. Instead, come home, have a meal (if you reallywant to adjust to nights, this would be a traditional evening meal, not breakfast), and make this time your ‘evening’. If you have children you could spend some time with them before they go to school, maybe even do the school run, so you’re not becoming completely alienated from the daytime hours and your family life.

If you don’t have children, you could simply unwind as you would in the evening, watching some television or read a book. Get your pre-sleep routine started 90 minutes before your targeted sleep time, which should contain some simple activities that are going to get you ready for sleep. For example, you can write down anything important that happened during your day or plan the following day. You should also avoid blue light (from technology) and make your room slightly colder (16 – 18C) than the rest of your house if possible, so you are moving into a cooler environment. Always keep your pre-sleep routine the same, this gets you into a routine that lets your body know it is time for sleep. It is here that blackout of your bedroom becomes important. You need to keep the daylight out of your sleeping environment, and if possible, darken the room you’re spending your pre-sleep routine in, so your body feels that night is falling.

When you are sleeping during the day, it’s important to utilise the 2 Controlled Recovery Period (nap) windows of midday (1 – 3pm) and early evening (5 – 7pm). Midday is especially important, as your circadian urge, mirroring the 2 – 3am period at night, is at its peak here. If you were able to, say, target a sleep time of 12.30 pm, it would enable you to get to sleep and take advantage of this period. Getting five cycles in during the day is challenging, with broken sleep very common, but four from here, taking you through to 6.30 pm, would allow you to use some of the early-evening slot.

The wake time in the evening should be constant and waking with light is even more important than it is for a day worker. If your wake time is 6.30pm, it means it will be dark in winter, so you’re going to need that light – get a dawn-wake simulator. In summer, the bigger challenge is blocking the light out to sleep. As soon as you wake, get the blackout blinds or curtains open and get some daylight on you. Then go about your post-sleep routine: empty your bladder, fuel, hydrate, do some light exercise. Again, if you have children and/or a partner, you have a bit of time here to spend with them. You’re not entirely alienating yourself from day-to-day life.

Once you get to work, light is vital. Standard artificial light is too weak, so you need daylight lamps, if possible. Blue light isn’t so badly timed here, as it helps with the suppression of melatonin. You want to be awake at this time, after all.

The obvious window for a CRP is around 2 – 3 am, the time of deepest sleepiness for those on a daytime schedule. Use this for a 30 or (if your job allows) 90 minute cycle.

If you only work night shifts, stick to this routine every day and, as you trick your body clock into adjusting to a new sleep-wake cycle, you might just feel, as you would when you adjust to a new time zone, you’ve cracked it by the end of the week. However, for many shift workers, this is when they try to revert to daylight hours to re-engage with family, friends and social opportunities. Even worse, for those on ever-changing patterns of shifts, they are effectively constantly changing to different time zones, so they’re always out of kilter with their surroundings.

If you are continuously switching between day and night shifts, choose a constant wake time which works for your day shifts and utilise CRPs and blue light in the day following a night shift. It would also be beneficial to sleep in shorter periods more often.

To further understand how you can create a recovery routine to fit around different shifts, have a look at the example below.

A police officer may work two day shifts (7am – 5pm), two late shifts (2pm – 12am) and two night shifts (12am – 7am) and then have a day off (rest day).

On their rest day they would sleep from 11.30pm until 7am (their constant wake time) and have a 30 minute CRP between 5.30pm – 8.30pm.

On their day shift they would sleep from 1am until before 7am and work their shift (7am – 5pm). After work they would have a 30 minute CRP between 5.30pm – 8.30pm.

When working a late shift, the officer would sleep from 2.30am until 7am, then for a full 90 minute cycle from 11.30am – 1pm. They then begin work at 2pm to 12am, during which they add in a 30 minute cycle in the 5.30pm to 8.30pm period.

Finally, when working a night shift, they work from 12am until 7am, during this time they have a 30 minute CRP between 2.30am to 4am. After their shift they would wait until 11.30am and sleep for 2/3 full cycles. Followed by another 1/2 full cycle after 5/30pm. They then begin work again at 12am.

Once their rest day comes back around, they start the routine from the beginning. You can find a sleep cycle planner which outlines this routine more clearly here.

Sport Sleep Coach can create a personalised recovery plan for you, to fit around your life and work. Find more information here.