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By Dr Eugene Brink

The holidays are nearly upon us and while many will be looking forward to a well-deserved break after almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, many people will be working irregular hours to keep us safe or simply keep their organisations running.

Night shifts are therefore a reality for many workers in South Africa and across the globe. According to the Sleep Foundation’s Dr Abhinav Singh and Danielle Pacheco, work schedules that fall anywhere outside the 0700 to 1800 period of the day could be considered shift work. Occupations that are subject to shift work include, among others, the following:

  • food preparers and servers
  • hairdressers, fitness trainers, and other personal care professionals
  • sales and retail staff
  • police officers, firefighters, and other first responders
  • doctors, nurses, and other medical staff
  • transportation, warehouse, and manufacturing plant workers

The toll on your health

“Shift work and long working hours have been linked to a number of health issues, according to the National Sleep Foundation. These include an increased risk of metabolic problems, heart disease, gastrointestinal difficulties, obesity, and certain cancers,” writes Hannah Nichols for MedicalNewsToday.

“Night-shift work may also interfere with the body’s ability to repair DNA damage that occurs from normal cellular processes. The suppression of melatonin – which is the hormone responsible for regulating the internal body clock – may play a role.

Own the night (shift)

While your shift work and its downsides may not disappear overnight, there are ways to   ameliorate this burden.

The University of St Augustine’s Health Sciences Department advises that you try to cluster night shifts together. “It’s helpful to cluster your shifts together and stick to a night-shift sleep schedule even on your off days. That way, your body can get used to one schedule and is not always in adaptation mode. One study found that nurses who worked rotating shifts – a group of night shifts followed by day shifts – reported lower job satisfaction, reduced quality and quantity of sleep, and more frequent fatigue. They were also at a higher risk of  developing psychological and cardiovascular symptoms.”

They admit that this is not also practical for everyone. “If you want to return to a more normal schedule after your last night shift of the week, try going to sleep in the morning – but get up in the early afternoon and stay active until a more normal bedtime. Take power naps during the next couple of days. Then, on your last free evening, stay up as late as possible, sleep in, and maybe even take a long nap before your first shift.”

Singh and Pacheco recommend making sure your significant other, children, roommates, and anyone else sharing your residence are aware of the importance of your designated sleep time. “They should not wake you up unless there’s a true emergency. Light and noise exposure may be other issues for sleeping during the day. Try drawing the shades or sleeping with an eye mask if your bedroom tends to be bright during the day. Earplugs and white noise machines can be effective at blocking outside sounds. Unless you are on call, consider turning your phone off while you sleep.”

Moreover, Nichols advises against activities and substances that make you feel alert before bedtime. For instance, avoid smoking and drinking alcohol before going to bed. You need to sleep purposely and not dawdle with it when you work night shifts. These will stymie falling asleep when you have to work.

While at work, try to limit your caffeine ingestion. It could provide a much-needed fillip, but only in moderation (a cup of coffee every two hours is sufficient). Water intake is equally important for staying hydrated. Try to get the blood moving by walking around or stretching. A power nap of 20 minutes, if possible, could also prove helpful.



Abhinav Singh and Danielle Pacheco, 9 October 2020, “Tips for Shift Workers”, https://www.sleepfoundation.org/shift-work-disorder/tips.

Hannah Nichols, 30 October 2017, “Life hacks: How to cope with night shifts”, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319918.

University of St Augustine, July 2020, “How to Work the Night Shift and Stay Healthy: 12 Tips”, https://www.usa.edu/blog/how-to-work-night-shift-and-stay-healthy/.


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