Healthy Sleep for On Call Workers

Working on-call poses unique challenges since there’s no way to predict when you will have to stay up all night. I could not find any research about on-call work. All the research pertains to shift work, which is more common. Here are a few tips I put together to reduce the negative effects of this difficult lifestyle. If you work on-call, I’d love to hear some of your top tips to staying healthy with this erratic schedule.

  1. Use caffeine with care to maintain alertness. Caffeine will help you stay alert but can also interfere with your sleep. Avoid it 3-4 hours before you believe you will go to sleep.

  2. Have a back up to take over if your client or patient needs your care longer than 16 hours. Working longer than 16 hours significantly increases medical mistakes[i] and your risk of having a car accident on the way home. Car crashes account for 22% of work related deaths. [ii]

  3. If possible, take a nap during the night.

  4. Don’t drive yourself home after a long, overnight shift. Arrange for someone to pick you up or take a cab or ride share service.

  5. Avoid eating sugary food during the night. Our bodies have a decreased ability to metabolize glucose at night[iii] and this may contribute to the increased risk night workers have for Type 2 Diabetes. Eat light, nutrient dense foods when you are working overnight. For more advice on nutrition click here.

  6. If you are going home during the day, wear sunglasses to reduce your exposure to light.

  7. Use blackout curtains in your bedroom.

  8. Have a relaxing bedtime ritual. This may include a bath, relaxing essential oils and listening to calming music. Keep the lights dim.

  9. Keep your room cool. Our bodies need to lower their temperature to sleep well.

  10. Avoid alcohol. It may seems to help you get to sleep but it suppresses melatonin production leading to disrupted REM sleep which is important to our brain function[iv].

  11. If you awaken before 7 hours of sleep, stay in bed and listen to a guided meditation track. This may help your brain to return to a sleep state.

  12. If you have several days of disrupted sleep, plan to catch up on sleep when you are not on call.

[i] Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine

[ii] National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health