surviving Shift work

by Michelle Reiher
EMCIS staff

It is estimated that 20% of the U.S. workforce works outside the traditional workday of 7am to 6pm – morning shifts, night shifts, or rotating shifts (IARC).  Shift work goes against your natural circadian rhythm causing difficulty adjusting to non-traditional work schedules. Shift work affects everyone differently. However, even if you get enough hours of sleep during the day, you may experience sleep problems due to circadian rhythm disruption because you continue to receive drowsy signals during the night. Circadian rhythm disruption has also been shown to increase incidence of cancer (breast, colorectal and prostate) as well as many other health issues.  Due to this, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified shift work involving circadian disruption as a probable human carcinogen in 2007.  This designation was followed up in 2019 with an IARC working group specifically designating night shift work as a probable human carcinogen (IARC).

Below are some strategies to help you navigate life while working shift work.


Strategy #1: Eat Good to Feel Good

Did you know that when you eat is as important as what you eat? Find a new routine that corresponds to your work schedule and eat full meals at pre-determined times.

Eating guidelines:

  • 5-6 hours between meals
  •  4 hours between last meal and bedtime


 Strategy #2: Sleep 7 – 9 Hours a Day

Experts agree that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each day. Did you know that less than 1% of the population can survive on 6 hours or less without impairment? (Walker).

Sleeping options:

  1. Sleep all at once — one 7-9 hour block of sleep
  2. Anchor your sleep — one 3-5 hour block of “anchor” sleep that will remain constant on both work days and non-work days, and one 3-5 hour block before or after the anchor block, depending on your shift
  3. Break it up — two 3-5 hour blocks of sleep
  4. Take a nap — one 6-7 hour block of sleep and one 1-2 hour nap

Know your sleep. A full sleep cycle takes approximately 90 minutes. You will feel more rested and be more restored if you schedule sleep in 90 minute increments. If a nap is what you need, aim for 20-30 minutes or 60-90 minutes to avoid grogginess. Ever wonder when the best time to sleep is? 

  • Strongest sleep drive is between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.
  • Best nap times are 12-2 p.m. and 2-4 p.m.
  • Worst nap times are from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1-3 hours before bedtime


Strategy #3: Socialize

People are important. Make sure to schedule time with family and friends.


Shift work is hard, but with a little planning and fortitude, you can live your best “shift work” life.




IARC Working Group on the Identification of Carcinogenic Hazards to Humans. (2020). Night shift work. IARC Monographs on the Identification of Carcinogenic Hazards to Humans. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Walker, M. (2018). Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. New York: Scribner.


A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Mining Engineering magazine.