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Night Work Coping Tips

Shift Work and Ways to Improve Sleep


Charles Czeisler, PhD, of Harvard, offers tips for healthy sleep for people who regularly work at night.

"The engineer and I talk a lot, especially in the wee hours of the morning, the time when it's hard to stay awake. We make sure we check on each other."
-Jack, locomotive engineer and brakeman 

There are several things you can do to prepare and manage your time for optimal sleep, especially if you regularly work at night. 

Plan ahead

Suppose you awaken in the morning after sleeping seven to nine hours, and expect to work that evening or at night. Take a mid-afternoon nap before you start work. It can help you stay alert on the job.

Don’t wait to nap until late afternoon or early evening. The normal upswing in alertness that occurs then may make it difficult or impossible to sleep.

If you work at night, expect to feel sleepiest roughly between 4 AM and 6 AM. Once you get through that time, you should feel more alert, thanks to your body clock, which triggers a morning rise in alertness. This upswing will occur even though you continue to stay awake longer. 

If you finish work in early morning hours, you have to choose between attempting sleep in the morning, when alertness continues to rise, or waiting until afternoon, when alertness wanes. You may sleep better in the afternoon. You run the risk of cutting sleep short, however, if called to work that evening or night. It's a tough choice.

Anticipate lower alertness during your internal night

If you must flip-flop your schedule, and work when you previously slept, expect to be less alert on the job. Consume caffeine at the appropriate time to boost alertness.

Sleep as long as possible at the same time every day

If you work a consistent shift, sleeping at the same time seven days a week helps stabilize your body clock, and increases the amount of good quality sleep that you obtain. The more sleep you can get at the same time each day, the better you’ll feel. Scientists call this regular period of sleep anchor sleep. Get the rest of the sleep you need whenever convenient. Sleeping just before you go to work can boost your alertness on the job.  

Get your anchor sleep at night if possible. Some weeks, your work schedule may require you to sleep in the daytime. Sometimes you may not be able to sleep as long as you wish. If you get only a few hours of sleep, anticipate that you may have sleep inertia when you awaken. Give yourself time to let sleep inertia wear off. Be sure you feel alert before driving to work.

On days off, you may be able to sleep longer, and still participate in family life. If you include anchor sleep as part of your sleep plan, you likely will sleep better overall. You also will feel better on and off the job.

Talk to your family and others in your household about the importance of your having a ‘protected’ sleep period. Return the favor by accommodating social/family obligations between sleep periods.

Stay busy to stay sharp

On the job, talk about what you are doing as you do it. Interact with co-workers to maintain focus.

Call signals out loud, even if no one can hear you. Speaking engages both the hearing and thinking part of your brain, and helps you stay on task. 

Pay attention to co-workers’ alertness. If their attention flags, say something, or step in if needed. 

Stay active. Don’t sit still for long periods. Move around and stretch when you can. Activity helps you stay alert.

Find information about other strategies for improving alertness here.