How to survive night work (and get more sleep)

“So are you coming in to work or what?”

“Oh no, what’s the time?”

“It’s 15 mins past your starting time, you better get your arse in here as soon as possible” (that was the ‘G’ rated version).

I’d just finished my first ever 12pm – 8am shift, went to sleep at 9am and slept right through till 12.15am the next morning. That was a straight 15 hours sleep!!! and I would have slept more, had I not been awakened by the Duty Sgt handing me my backside over the phone.

When exactly the same scenario happened the next shift (and the same Duty Sgt had to make the same phone call) I took his advice and started setting my alarm clock.

Unfortunately the next 6 months of night shift experiences were a case of not being able to get to sleep, not getting enough sleep, or finally getting to sleep and then being woken by someone/thing.

I hated night work! I’d be cranky, wouldn’t train well, wouldn’t eat well and I was guaranteed to get a cold sore every single row I worked. 

I didn’t want to be miserable and sick every time night work came around and so I created routines that I could implement for all my shifts. I stuck to these as best as possible and the difference in my sleeping and health was amazing! I still hated night work, but these routines made it bearable.

I’ve since encouraged shift workers on our SBF Challenge to follow this structure, and have received great feedback from them also. But first, a bit of information to explain how it all works…IMG_2559


There’s a part in your brain that monitors the amount of light you see. When there’s less light (in the evening), your brain notices and prompts the release of chemicals, which gives the body the signal to fall asleep. When more light is registered (at sunrise) these chemicals are reduced in the brain and replaced with other chemicals in the body to keep you awake. This system of chemical release also affects other functions of the body including your digestion, blood pressure, temperature, heart rate etc. and is known as your “circadian rhythm”.

When you try and alter your circadian rhythm, you place stress and other disruptions to all other systems in your body. Shift workers are at a higher risk for: gastrointestinal problems, sleep disorders, heart disease, psychological disorders, family problems, work related accidents and much more.

A “S.E.T” (Sleep. Eat. Train) routine will reduce the negative impact of shift work.

Have a routine for your work shifts and do EXACTLY the same routine for every single one of those shifts. For example, have a set routine for an 8am – 4pm shift, a set routine for a 4pm – 12 mdn shift and a set routine for a 12mdn – 8am shift. This routine should include sleeping (or attempting to) eating and training.



Sleep is the most important factor when creating your routine. You can make yourself eat at specific times, you can make yourself train at specific times but you can’t make yourself sleep at specific times (unless you’re taking medication and you want to try avoiding that if possible). However, you can attempt to sleep at specific times and you are much more likely to succeed if you’re following a routine.

  • Determine when you definitely can’t sleep e.g. have to drop off / pick up kids from school or other commitments
  • Take into consideration what is working best for you now e.g. sleeping straight after work in the morning and then again in the afternoon
  • Write out SPECIFIC SLEEP TIMES for each shift e.g. sleep routine for an 8am – 4pm shift, sleep routine for a 4pm – 12 mdn shift etc
  • Stick to these sleep times ALL THE TIME! If you can’t fall to sleep during this time, at least lie down and rest.
  • Always roster appointments outside of your specified sleep times (learn to say NO to people)
  • Most importantly…

Create a behaviour pattern to follow before every sleep session, regardless if this is at night or during the day.

For example: Have something light to eat at least an hour before your scheduled sleep. Turn off all electronic gadgets and lights in the room. Have a shower and clean your teeth. Do some slow and controlled breathing exercises. Lie down and read a book for 15 mins.

A specific routine (to be implemented before ALL sleep times) is beneficial as it will allow your body to recognise the signals and prepare itself more readily for sleep.


Divide each 24 hrs into 3 hourly blocks (you could change these times to suit your routine but make sure it’s roughly in 3 hourly blocks).IMG_4493

6am: main meal

9am: snack

12 midday: main meal

3pm: snack

6pm: main meal

9pm: snack

12midnight: snack

3am: snack

Each day you are to eat 3 main meals and 2 or 3 snacks.

  • If you are working an 8 – 4pm shift, you would NOT eat the 12 midnight and 3am snacks as you would be sleeping. You also may want to move the 9pm snack an hour earlier.
  • If you are working a 4p – 12 midnight shift, you would NOT eat the 3am and 6am food as you would be sleeping.
  • If you are working a 12 midnight – 8am shift you would NOT eat the 9am or 12 midday food as you would be sleeping. You may even skip the 9pm food if you’re having another sleep.

The goal is to eat at the same times every day, or as close to these as possible. Always have food available (if you’re working, a small esky in the car and food in your pockets is the way to go).

Routine is important! It allows for an easier transition from night work shifts as your body becomes accustomed to a regular eating pattern.

The other factor to change is the amount of food you’re eating at certain times. You don’t want to be eating the biggest meal of the day if you’re going to have your biggest sleep in an hour.

  • Have your biggest meal after you awake from your longest sleep.
  • Have your smallest meal before your longest sleep.
  • No caffeinated drinks at least 3 hours before your longest sleep.

You’ll need to be prepared for anything, regardless if you’re working shift work or not. A good idea is to plan ahead and know the places you can go in times of desperation. For instance if you get overtime and haven’t packed enough food, or if you left your food at home, or if someone’s stolen your food from the staff meal room.

Check out takeaway options available in your area, remembering you can always ask them to modify to healthier versions if needed. Read this blog for the healthiest takeaway options


Decide on when is the best, and most realistic, time for you to train. There are advantages and disadvantages to both training in the morning and the afternoon.Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 12.36.07 pm

Upon waking: This is an ideal time as the body is refreshed.

Before work: Good time as the training can be regularly scheduled and gets you “awake” and ready for work.

After work: Not ideal as you’re more likely to be tired and possibly lack motivation.

When you get the time: Let’s be serious, this probably isn’t going to happen.

During work: Most ideal situation if this is at all possible.

Whatever you decide, STICK TO THE TRAINING PLAN!

You’ll feel more energised and be better able to cope with the added stresses of night work if you continue exercising (or start exercising).

Here are some suggestions to keep you training on shift work:

  • Join a 24/7 gym.
  • Exercise with other people you’re working with. You’re more likely to train after or before work if you have someone you’re accountable to.
  • Use your meal break to get some exercise in (make sure you don’t skip the food though). You can get a great workout in 15 mins, you just need to be organised. Try these quick workouts that don’t require space or equipment
  • Organise your long term training schedule, including a recovery week, according to your night work shifts. Eg if you are rostered night work every 4 weeks, use this as a recovery week for training. This means that you’ll still train, but at a lower intensity and volume, which is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT!!!! If you want to increase and maximize your fitness, you need to let the body recover – what better time than on night work when you’re not operating at 100% anyway. This could mean adding in an extra rest day, shorter sessions, less volume, less distance, more rest between sets etc. *SBF Challenge members, you could use our week 5 recovery training sessions here*
  • If you work permanent night work shifts, rotate your recovery week every 4 weeks anyway. Schedule your rest day (we all should be having at least one each week) after your last shift to allow for an easier transition to days off.
  • Make sure on your first day off after night work, you train at some stage.

Do not be tempted to celebrate the end of night work with a feast of crap food and alcohol! You survived night work, you didn’t win the lottery.

If you’d like a structured 8 week health and fitness plan, join our team on the SBF Challenge. We’ve helped thousands of people organise their busy schedules, regain their motivation, lose weight and gain happiness. It can be done, you just need to take that hardest first step and decide to try!

Learn more about the SBF Challenge

Author: Sally Brouwer

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