Although the 9-to-5 workday is still seen as typical, there are plenty of entrepreneurs and hard workers who keep their business hours outside the norm.
Odd schedules and shifts do have some benefits and are necessary for many industries, but one area that can suffer with irregularity is sleep. Recently, researchers have been taking a closer look at how different patterns impact rest and health risks, providing important insight for people who aren’t keeping normal office hours.
Sleep timing and the circadian rhythm
The body’s circadian rhythm sets the pace for wakefulness and drowsiness during the day, and one thing it loves is routine. It’s also naturally programmed to use cues like sunlight and darkness to stay on track.
Going to bed and waking at vastly different times from day to day can throw off natural rhythms, making it hard to fall or stay asleep and increasing drowsiness during waking hours. Working the graveyard shift brings even more problems, including fighting drowsiness at night and struggling to sleep when it’s daylight outside.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, studies looking at the effects of night and shift work have found that off-hours are associated with greater fatigue, increased car crashes and lapses of judgment, irritability and reduced productivity. Irregular sleep schedules are also linked to higher risks of cancer, diabetes, infertility, obesity and gastrointestinal disease. Other, newer studies just released in 2015 show increased cardiovascular disease and lung cancer risk, increased diabetes risk particularly for black women, increased multiple sclerosis risk and a higher preference for fatty foods.
Many of these same risks of have also been linked with sleep deprivation, which is a significant issue for shift workers. One study from 2004 estimated that 32 percent of night shift and 26 percent of rotating shift workers experience insomnia or excessive sleepiness. There's even such a thing as shift work sleep disorder, estimated to effect about 10 percent of night and rotating shift workers. It’s characterized by feeling drowsy when you’re supposed to be awake, not getting enough rest, irritability and not feeling well-rested after sleeping.
All this is not to say that it’s impossible to sleep well on a nontypical schedule -- many people adjust just fine. For those experiencing difficulty, however, awareness of the different considerations and knowing how to support healthier sleep can prove important.
Sleeping well with irregular hours
Entrepreneurs often find themselves working on projects at all hours of the day, which means sleep isn't always following a regular pattern. Others have work schedules that require shifts, which may have them up early today and working late tomorrow.
For people whose schedules vary just a little, trying to maintain at least a consistent wake-up time may be helpful if bedtimes vary. Waking up around the same time every day is believed to be most significant for circadian rhythms, and one study also found the habit was associated with healthy body composition. Pick a time that works for you on most days, and try to stick with it. Following nights when sleep is lacking, try to fit a nap into the early afternoon to boost energy and help your brain.
People who work the night shift essentially find their entire days flipped around, and many struggle to adjust. Night shift workers have a higher than average risk of being sleep deprived. Research shows shift workers also sleep one to three hours less than non-shift workers in an average day. The day and night reversal can be tricky, but regular night shift workers can benefit from following a regular routine to help support their bodies’ rhythms. Pick a bedtime and wake time that allow for a minimum of seven hours of sleep (not just time in bed, but actual sleep) and that you can continue with on your days off.
Some researchers suggest that wearing sunglasses home from work and keeping bedrooms very dark can help. Exposure to bright, blue spectrum light during waking hours, taking 20 to 30 minute naps and taking small doses of caffeine early in the day are other tips suggested for shift workers by Harvard’s Healthy Sleep website.
Sleeping well can be most difficult for people who only work late part of the time, since setting up a routine is even harder. When hours vary enough that maintaining a semi-regular sleep schedule just isn’t possible, focusing on other areas of sleep hygiene may prove helpful.
Key tenants of sleep hygiene include following a relaxing bedtime routine, using the bed for sleep only, getting regular exercise, moderating caffeine and alcohol use, and keeping bedrooms dark, quiet and cool. If you have an irregular schedule and aren’t feeling well-rested, try incorporating the following actions into your day.
- Get bright light exposure shortly after waking and during your day, but keep lights dim in the hours before sleep.
- Though it can be tempting to catch up on Facebook or Netflix, don't to use electronics like phones, laptops and TVs before bed. Try a book, magazine, yoga, music or a bath instead.
- Create a regular routine of things to do before heading to bed. This could be setting out tomorrow’s clothes, washing up, changing into pajamas or reading. Keep it consistent in order to associate the behaviors with sleep.
- Stay out of your bedroom -- especially the bed -- except for when going to sleep.
- Keep room temperatures cool during sleep time, and make the room as dark as possible. Blackout shades or an eye mask are a must-have for those whose sleep schedule crosses into daylight hours.
- Use a white noise app or machine or even earplugs if noises prove bothersome.
- Avoid eating larger meals or drinking alcohol within a few hours of bedtime, and steer clear of caffeine at least six hours prior to bed.
If improving your habits and incorporating healthy sleep hygiene tips aren’t proving effective, try to find ways to optimize your work schedule or talk with a doctor about supplements or therapies that could be appropriate.
What’s your experience with schedules and rest? Do you notice changes to your sleep quality when working different hours? Share in the comments.