As a night shift worker, you have probably wondered how to take care of your mental health while working at night, especially because, in today’s society, a large part of the time is spent at work, and jobs significantly influence the mental health of workers.
Concerning work schedules, the shift system affects (including people who work exclusively at night) approximately 20% of the working population. It is very common in industrialized countries to have 24-hour services for economic or health reasons (hospitals, police departments, fire departments, construction, etc.).
These work rhythms pose great inconveniences for workers: sleeping during the day is not the same as sleeping at night. It is not easy for the body to adapt its biological rhythms to irregular schedules or an increasingly demanding artificial schedule. Regarding the intensity of physiological functions, the moments in which you are most active usually coincide with the day, and at night the intensity decreases.
Consequences of working at night
These are some of the consequences from a psychopathological point of view: sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue syndrome, stress, depressive symptoms, etc.
Insomnia would be the main disorder associated with work shifts, mainly for those who work the night shift. Sleep is altered especially in its duration and quality. There are also difficulties in “sleeping straight” and it is very common for night workers to wake up several times.
Circadian rhythm disorder is another of the most common pathologies, it occurs when the oscillations in the biological functions of our body that regulate the intervals in which we sleep and are awake are altered.
To diagnose it, there must be clinically significant discomfort and social or occupational impairment as a consequence of it. Most of those affected do not usually seek therapeutic help unless they have symptoms of high intensity, such as falling asleep while driving or at work.
This disorder can occur for various reasons: delayed sleep, time change, jet lag, etc.
Light is an important factor, it has a suppressive effect on melatonin secretion. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced mainly in the pineal gland, which is located in our brain. Melatonin influences the immune system, aging, cardiovascular diseases, daily rhythm changes, sleep, psychiatric conditions, mood, depression, etc.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Fatigue is not a disease, it is a normal biological response of the organism when it is subjected to work, physical or mental of high intensity. During the work, fatigue plays the role of an adaptive function, it appears to alert us to an adverse situation and prevents the body from reaching an extreme situation.
The most serious cases of fatigue are diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, it is a serious state of physical and mental exhaustion, which generates a generalized feeling of lack of energy to carry out any work, and worsens with minimal effort.
This syndrome appears accompanied by other symptoms such as muscle pain, attention and concentration difficulties, memory problems, and affective disorders. All this significantly influences the life of the workers.
Several factors contribute to the appearance of fatigue at work:
Environmental factors: highly overloaded environments, smoke, noise, overcrowding, inadequate lighting, etc.
Psychological factors: lack of interest in work, the weight of responsibility, frustration, intimate conflicts, monotony, one’s sensitivity, family and sexual problems, etc.
Stress appears when a person has to face environmental demands that exceed their resources or at least that is their perception, for example, when people perceive that they cannot respond effectively. In these situations, the organism responds with stress, which translates into an increase in physiological and mental activation, which, in turn, prepares for intense physical activity.
There is a close relationship between rotative shift work and job stress. The constant process of adaptation to which these types of workers are subjected is a constant source of stress. In rotative shifts, physical disorders caused by stress, such as gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems, are very common.
There is no direct relation between rotative or night shifts and depression, however, the accumulation of the disorders described above may increase the chances of developing this problem.
Difficulties in maintaining an adequate social and family life often lead to problems in personal relationships between a significant other and in caring for children. Not having a common family schedule, in which the hours dedicated to rest and leisure are aligned, prevents, on many occasions, the establishment of an adequate family schedule.
There can be a notable decrease in sexual relations by not coinciding with the other person in the schedules. However, rotating work not only influences the affected worker themself. In fact, an important emotional impact has been found on the children whose parents work during rotative or night shifts.
When is Night Shift not Advised?
Absolutely not recommended if one or more of the following conditions are present:
- Severe gastrointestinal disease (includes severe liver or pancreatic disease)
- Diabetes, especially insulin-dependent
- Serious hormonal irregularities
- High cardiovascular risk factors
- Depressive states
- Psychotic states
- Chronic sleep disorders.
At home habits to improve alertness when working the night shift
- Sleeping in a dark and quiet room
- Comfortable lying surface
- Adequate room temperature during sleep
- Do not ingest caffeine 4 hours before going to sleep
- Regular ambient sound to mask disturbances
- If you get hungry at bedtime, eat something light
- Avoid eating or drinking significant amounts before going to sleep
- Maintain the usual organization of activities for the next 24 hours
- Practice a pre-sleep ritual on a daily basis (like taking a shower, brushing your teeth, reading, etc)
- Your room should be used only for sleeping
- If you cannot fall asleep in less than 30 minutes, get up to do something that induces sleep (read, drink a herbal tea), avoid turning your head from side to side and tossing and turning in bed
- Sleep the amount of time it takes to be alert, no more (6 to 8 hours of sleep are advised)
- Get up at a regular time
- Moderate exercise during the afternoon or early night
- Before going to bed in the morning when you arrive from the shift, avoid exposure to intense light (sunlight). We recommend the use of sunglasses when leaving work until bedtime in order to avoid inhibition of the secretion of melatonin due to sunlight exposure
- When you wake up (ideally in the afternoon) try to expose yourself to the afternoon sunlight that is left.
- Before a night shift, take a 1-hour nap that ends at least 30 minutes before getting ready for work when possible
At work habits Improve alertness
- Physical activity (walking, chewing gum, stretches.)
- When possible, the temperature in your office or workplace should be low.
- Make sure your workspace has adequate lighting
- Keep yourself motivated
- Active interactions (with residents, staff, patients, etc.)
- Consumption of caffeine strategically
- Eat a main protein meal or healthy meal between midnight and 1:00 a.m. and a smaller one between 03:00 and 04:00 a.m., avoid copious meals while on duty
- Small naps if possible, with a minimum duration of 30 minutes
- Variation of activities when possible, especially if you fall into a state of boredom
It is clear that working at night can be hard and uncomfortable sometimes, but also necessary for the proper functioning of many sectors of society. The world cannot be frozen, but I think it is important to be aware of the problems that can arise due to these types of shifts.
If even after you put into practice some of the tips listed above you still don’t feel good, make sure to visit your doctor.