Better Sleep for Shift Work

Shift work is notoriously bad for sleep. But a small trial suggests that older people working nights might perform better and sleep better if they stay up longer, sleep a full eight hours and wake up closer to the start of work.

The study, conducted by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School, sought to answer what would happen if shift workers changed their sleep patterns, according to a Jan. 31 article by Reuters Health.

Past research has shown that night workers tend to sleep soon after their shift ends and wake up several hours before they go back to work, the article said. When they arrive at work, they have been awake before work longer than a typical day worker.

“We know the longer an individual is awake, the more sleep pressure they build up,” said Jeanne Duffy of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “We wanted to test if placement of sleep closer to the next night shift would reduce sleepiness.”

They tested two groups of nine adults, ranging in age from mid-50s to early 60s. All participated in simulated work shifts in a lab at Brigham and Women’s clinical research center. Each “worked” four day shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., had a day off, and then worked four night shifts from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

During the four night shifts, one group was instructed to stay out of bed until 1 p.m. and then stay in bed for eight hours. That group averaged two more hours of sleep than the other group, which was only given the instruction to delay going to bed until 1 p.m. The second group spent less and less time in bed each day.

Researchers found that both groups were prone to lose focus on the night shift when compared with the day shift, but the group that slept more performed somewhat better, the article said.

The study was published online Jan. 16 in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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