Your job requires you to stay awake when most people are asleep. In school, you might have pulled the occasional all-nighter to finish an assignment or crunch for an exam. But 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 shift. Of course, it’s easier to stay awake when there’s lots of action. It’s the slow nights without much to do that are the real brute of a challenge. Here are some ways to pull it off.
The importance of staying awake
Staying awake and alert on the night shift is critical to avoiding errors. Some of the worst man-made catastrophes have been attributed to mistakes made on the night shift: the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker spill, the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chornobyl, and the cyanide gas disaster in Bhopal, India.
A 2020 study of 60 petrochemical control room operators suggested shift workers had a significant reduction in cognitive function at the end of both day and night shifts—but overall, workers had more sleepiness and lower mental performance during nights.
Stimulate your mind
If you’re faced with downtime during the wee hours, find ways to busy your brain. Keeping your mind stimulated is the best way to avoid accidentally snoozing. Bring crosswords, sudoku, or other brain teasers. Listen to podcasts or energizing music. Work on your blog, 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 had our best convos in the small hours of the morning while we were struggling to keep our eyes open. Chatting made the time fly until we had more work to do or the day shift workers arrived to relieve us.
Keep it lit
A well-lit workspace plays a big role in keeping you awake all night. If you work in a dim environment (e.g., to help patients sleep in a hospital ward), then at least take your breaks in full light to perk you up.
Regular motion fights off that urge to go to beddy-bye.
Move around as much as possible. Regular 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 bump up your heart rate and give you a great boost. Find some new ways to get the blood flowing and stay awake here.
Warmth can make you feel cozy and comfy and snoozy. Keep your work area a tiny bit cool to stay awake and alert. I liked to dress in layers to accommodate fluctuating temperatures. A small desk fan circulating cool air can be helpful too. Sip a cool drink 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—it can offer a quick perk up. And the change of scenery is mentally refreshing.
Try a cappuccino
Many night shift workers find that caffeine helps decrease sleepiness and improve performance. If you happen to work the kind of job that allows for breaks for a quick cat nap, a nappuccino—also called a caffeine nap—might be just the ticket. A caffeine nap means having your caffeine right before you take a 20–30 minute nap. (Read what researchers say about them here and here.) You’ll also want to space your caffeine intake as far as possible from the time you intend to go to bed after a night shift. Depending on your caffeine tolerance, try not to consume caffeine 4–6 hours before sleep.
A nappuccino—also called a caffeine nap—might be just the ticket.
Eating meals high in carbs and low in protein can make you feel extra sleepy (think bagels, doughnuts, and muffins on their own). Pair these snacks with some protein (cottage cheese, sliced turkey, hard-boiled egg, etc.) to prolong your energy. Avoid fast foods and sugar rushes from the vending machine.
Eating small portions throughout the night may help us feel less sleepy. Heavy meals during the night can send us into “rest and digest” mode. Realistically, however, many night shift workers may only have a single chance to eat overnight, so eat according to your needs and schedule.
Chew minty gum
Freshen your breath for a little jolt of awakeness with a fresh stick of minty gum when you feel yourself nodding off. Spicy cinnamon gum works well too. Or try brushing your teeth!
It might seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating—if you get enough Zzz’s during the daytime before you work, then you won’t be as plagued by sleepiness during your shift. There are even schedules that you can use to optimize your daytime sleep!
Working irregular hours on nights changes your body’s natural sleeping pattern, which can cause fatigue and sleep disruption. It can be hard to stay alert after long hours of being awake and working while the sun is down. Try some of the tips mentioned above to beat the fatigue and stay bright and bushy-tailed all night long. What works for you?