Berlin (dpa) – It is 2.30 pm and time for Michaela Lins and Christine Langanke to get up and prepare for their night shift in a German hospital. The two nurses work through the night, from 8.30 in the evening to 6.15 the next morning, and they find the hours take it out of them.
”It grinds you down, particularly when you do a week of nights or early shifts,” Lins says. Her last shift was a relatively quiet one, but she is still feeling the effects of night work. She prefers to alternate, while her colleague works only night shifts.
Falling asleep after a night shift presents no problem to either of them. Nevertheless many shift workers complain of sleeping difficulties during the hours that are available to them to sleep.
Andrea Rodenbeck, a Berlin professor specializing in the area, recommends a few simple tricks to bring relief. ”It is important to sleep in a quiet and darkened room. The alarm clock should not be illuminated, or you become fixated on the time and can’t fall asleep,” she says.
So-called biphasic sleep – having two periods of sleep in a 24-hour cycle – is an option. Night-shift workers sleep soon after coming off duty, and then take a nap shortly before going on again.
When at work, whether on an early or late shift, one should always try to have as much light as possible, as this sends a message to the body that it should remain awake. And this allows night workers to use a simple trick to deceive their own bodies.
”It may help to go home in the morning wearing dark glasses, so that the sunlight is not transmitting the messages ‘day’ and ‘work’ to the body,” Rodenbeck says.
This is not an option that Langanke would make use of. ”When the sun shines in the morning, particularly as now in summer, I feel happy. I really enjoy it and look forward to an afternoon outside. In any case, after a night at work, I’m tired enough despite the sun.”
Others see things differently. For those experiencing difficulties with their sleeping rhythms, Rodenbeck advises routine and ritual.
”The things we do correctly with children, calming them down with a bedtime story, we then forget as adults,” she says. ”We also need to come down from the day’s stresses. Drink a cup of herbal tea or a glass of warm milk. And it’s not just the drink itself, but the waiting during the preparation and slowly drinking the hot beverage.
This all helps us to calm down,” she says.
There should also be regular hot drinks and meals during a night shift. Darkness causes the temperature of the body to fall, according to Antje Gahl, a German nutrition expert. For those to whom herbal tea does not appeal there is vegetable stock or other hot drinks.
Coffee is permitted, but only in moderation. ”One shouldn’t slake one’s thirst with coffee and also not drink coffee immediately before the end of the shift. But a couple of cups are fine,” Gahl says.
Lins eats an evening meal with her children before going off to her night shift, and this is correct in Gahl’s view. A light meal immediately before starting work is the best option.
”What is important is to eat in time so that your attention and concentration do not even begin to fade,” Gahl says. At night, a banana or a sandwich could provide a snack. She also advises having breakfast before going to sleep: ”Otherwise the intervening period could be too long and your sleep could be interrupted by being hungry.”
If nothing helps, night shift workers should approach their superiors, and consult the regulations and legislation governing hours at work. In Germany, for example, a maximum of three night shifts in succession is allowed.
Recent research has shown that adaptation to a cycle longer than 24 hours is relatively easy for many. This implies that a working roster of two early shifts, followed by two late shifts, and then two night shifts, before two days off might suit many workers, rather than the other way round.