Wake-up call: Sleep and shift work

Professor Danny Eckert head of the NeuRA Sleep Lab.


Doctors, nurses, miners, firefighters, pilots, hotel workers – these are just a handful of professionals who have signed up for shift work. In fact, 1.4 million Aussies sacrifice sleep for their job, but round-the-clock careers can take a toll. Research has found that shift workers are at a greater risk of everything from obesity and cardiovascular disease, to mood disorders and cancer. Professor Danny Eckert recently answered some questions on how the health of shift workers is affected by inadequate sleep.


Humans are designed to sleep at night and be awake during the day. If you fight that natural rhythm what happens?

We certainly know that optimal sleep occurs at night. It is challenging to sleep during the day, and if we’re not getting enough sleep or getting it at the wrong time of day, every organ in the body is adversely affected.


What’s your advice for getting adequate sleep while juggling shift work?

The things we can do are the same as in terms of sleeping regularly; stick to a schedule, keep the bedroom dark and quiet, avoid bright lights, heavy meals and caffeine before going to sleep.


How long should we be sleeping?

Seven to nine hours is the recommended amount of time for 18 to 64-year-olds.


Shift work or not, a lot of Australians love a nap. What are the rules around napping?

A nap can be a really powerful improvement for performance, especially for shift workers, but it needs to be done properly. 10 to 30 minutes of napping is optimal. If you go beyond that, you get ‘sleep inertia,’ which is where you become more groggy when you wake up.


What should shift workers be eating to optimise their sleep?

You should avoid heavy meals, spicy food and milk which can give you reflux and disrupt sleep. Consider pre-preparing small and health ‘light’ meals to help you make healthier choices.


Do the health disorders associated with shift work stem from lack of sleep or is there something bigger at play?

Four out of ten Australians are getting inadequate sleep, and we know that this adversely affects every organ in the body. We know that prioritising sleep is a fantastic medicine for a healthy, happy life. It is one of the three pillars of health, alongside exercise and diet, so it definitely contributes to the overall wellbeing of shift workers.
NeuRA is working on better understanding the effects of shift-work and the impact on sleep patterns through the work of Prof Danny Eckert and his team at the NeuRA Sleep Lab. Learn more. 

Leave a Reply