Top tips for handling shift work

We all know that shift work can play havoc on our biological clocks, making it more difficult to sleep and wake up at the right times, and to focus when you’re at work. While there’s no magic cure that works for everyone, the experts suggest the following tips will help recharge your batteries and get a good night’s sleep.


  1. Get support from your family. If you have a partner or a family, discuss the implications of your shift work on your home life. Think about how it may affect childcare, household chores and time spent together. Put a plan in place that works for your family and try to ensure that you make time for one another, even if it’s difficult.
  2. Prepare your body. If you’re working a night shift, give your body a bit of a heads up. Let’s say you’ve been working from 6pm to 2am and you’re about to move to an 11pm start with a 6am finish. That’s a big shock for your body! Start gradually postponing your normal bedtime if you can, and get used to sleeping in daylight hours. You may want to sleep from 4am to 11am on preparation day one, from 6am to 1pm on preparation day two and from 8am to 3pm on preparation day three. It’ll still be a big change when you start your new shift pattern, but the impact will be less pronounced than if you just jump straight in.
  3. Stick with the programme. Even if you’re working four nights on and three nights off, try to stick to the same sleep pattern on your off days. This will help your body get used to the routine and ensure that you’re tired at the right times.
  4. Try to work clockwise. If your manager schedules shifts at different times, ask to have the next ones start later than the last ones. For example, if you’ve just worked a 4pm to 12pm shift, you’ll feel better if your next shift is 6pm to 2am than if it’s from 2pm to 10pm.
  5. Get some exercise in. The last thing you’ll probably feel like doing is exercising, but this will help to keep your endorphins pumping and should give your more, not less energy. You don’t have to train for a marathon; you could simply take a short walk. Sitting in daylight will also help to make your biological clock more alert.
  6. Say no. If you find that your shift patterns are constantly changing and you’re not getting enough sleep, consider saying no to unreasonable shifts. The last thing you want is to put too much pressure on your body and end up feeling rundown or depressed. You may be able to find alternative work or to take on overtime at a more reasonable hour. If working shifts means you constantly miss important occasions, it’s also worth considering whether they’re sustainable. Some milestones only come around once, and you may regret missing them in the years to come.
  7. Think about your commute. Driving when you’re really tired can raise stress levels and may even lead to accidents. Find out if there is another option. Could you take public transport safely? Could you share lifts so that you only have to drive every other day? Does your workplace offer pickups and dropoffs?
  8. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. It can be really tempting to plug yourself full of caffeine when you’re feeling tired, or to have a ‘nightcap’ once you’ve clocked off in the early hours, but these substances will have a negative impact on your sleep and on your awake times in the long run. Drink plenty of water, and make sure you’re eating a healthy diet.
  9. Remind your family not to wake you up! It’s lovely to be woken up by a smiley child, but if you’ve only just dropped off to sleep it can be a killer. Tell your family members when you will be sleeping and put a note on the door if they’re old enough to read. Encourage them to engage in quiet activities during this time. No playing the drums or watching loud YouTube videos!
  10. Beware the sleeping tablets. Some people take herbal or medical sleeping tablets to help them regulate their sleep. While studies show that some sleeping tablets have no proven effect, others may do more harm than good. For example, they might make it much more difficult to get up when your alarm goes off (or even to hear your alarm), or you may feel really groggy after taking them. If you plan to use them, speak to your doctor and listen to his/her advice.


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Joy Tibbs is a freelance writer and editor who regularly contributes to Premier. Find out more at and find her on Twitter @joyous25

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