Staying awake for your entire night shift is probably the difference between keeping your job and losing it. In school, you might have pulled the occasional all-nighter to finish an assignment or crunch for an exam. But the experience of working the graveyard shift, night after night, is entirely different.
If you’re a lucky duck, you may have designated breaks and a comfy place to crash for a cat nap during the night, but you’ll still need to figure out how to stay awake and alert most of the night. And of course, it’s easier to stay awake when there is lots of action. It’s the slow nights without much to do that present the real brute of a challenge. Here are some tips on how to pull it off.
Stimulate your mind
If you’re faced with lots of downtime, find ways to keep your brain busy. Keeping your mind busy is the best way to avoid accidentally snoozing. Bring crosswords, sudoku, or other brain teasers. Listen to podcasts or energizing music. Work on a personal project, plan a vacation, browse the flyers, figure out your weekly meal plan, etc.
Engage with other humans
If you have coworkers around, chat it up. At my work, we have our best chats in the wee hours of the morning while we are struggling to keep our eyes open. Chatting makes the time fly until we have more work to do, or the day shift arrives to relieve us.
Keep it lit
A well-lit workspace plays a big role in keeping awake all night. If you work in a dim work environment (eg to keep patients asleep in a hospital ward) then at least take your breaks in full light to perk you up.
Drink lots of water
It’s healthy and it’s a natural diuretic. All that peeing can actually help you stay awake! Drinking lots of water will also help your body run at optimum levels and is especially important if you’ve been sipping coffee, which might dehydrate you a bit.
Move around as much as possible. Perpetual motion fights off that urge to go to beddy-bye. Kick it up to the next level with some on-the-spot fitness. Climbing three or four flights of stairs will kick up your heart rate and give you a great boost to awake.
Warmth can make you feel cozy and comfy and snoozy. Keep your work area a tiny bit cool to keep awake. I liked to dress in layers to accommodate fluctuating temperatures. A small desk fan circulating cool air can be helpful too. Sip cool drinks if you feel sleepiness start to overcome you.
Breathing in fresh air is an instant pick-me-up that can last for hours. If you can get outside during your shift -even for just a few minutes- the outside air can freshen you up. And the change of scenery is mentally refreshing.
Eating meals high in carbs and low in protein can make you feel extra sleepy (think bagels, doughnuts, muffins, etc). Avoid too much caffeine, heavy meals, fast foods, sugar highs, high-fat snacks from vending machines. They offer little nutritional value and can make you extra drowsy.
Chew minty gum
Freshen your breath and give yourself a little jolt of awakeness with a fresh stick of minty gum when you feel yourself nodding off. Spicy cinnamon gum works well too.
It might seem obvious but it’s worth repeating- if you get enough Zzzzz’s during the daytime before your shift, then you won’t be as plagued by sleepiness during your shift. Check out my article Daytime Sleeping for the Night Shift for more help.
DYK? Some of the worst man-made catastrophes have been attributed to mistakes made on the night shift: the BP oil leak in Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill, the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the cyanide chemical spill in Bhopal, India. Avoiding critical errors is an important reason to stay alert all night long.