9 Shift Work Best Practices You’re Probably Not Doing

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Sleeping during the day…eating at 3am…working the weekend? Pardon? 

When you start a shift working job and sign on the dotted line, nobody ever gives you insight on the best practices of working an irregular schedule. With only ever working a rotating roster, let me show you these vital lessons to avoid learning best practices the hard way. 

Person in night-gown pushing shopping cart with alcohol | Shift work best practices
Please share with your shift work friends!

Our shift work best practices include the following;

I love this quote from the brilliant Oprah Winfrey, “Do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do.”  

Until you have either reached a point financially, physically or whatever marker you’re using for yourself, shift work is probably your reality. So continue reading for more detail on our 9 shift working best practices to adopt today, to make for a better shift working career tomorrow.

1. Knowing Your Schedule 

Are you the “fly by the seat of your pants” type or are you more structured within your routine?

Regardless of how you operate, you need to have a firm grip on your irregular schedule.

Where you need to be and when you need to be there is something you shouldn’t take lightly if you want to fit everything in. And if you’ve worked a 9-5 position this is not as easy as you once thought.

Here are a few tips for staying in control and knowing your schedule:

  • Use an appHere are our favorite shift working calendar apps for those no longer using a paper diary.
  • Be aware of the roster request lockout dates and how to request (if able) – This post gives you some epic rostering tricks you’ll want to check out.
  • Share your roster with your family either digitally or stick it on the fridge
  • Establish rituals and stick to them – If having a date night once a week with your partner/spouse is non-negotiable, don’t ever let your work schedule get in the way of this. Swap a shift, reschedule the date for the next night if you absolutely need to, but make sure it happens consistently.
  • Be aware of what your schedule actually means – Are you required to work overtime? Is there an expectation you work weekends? Are you on a rotating roster where you move from shift to shift after a period of time? Don’t assume you know this stuff and go find out the answer. You don’t need surprises popping up when you were expected or excited to go somewhere and now you have to work…

2. Having a Basic Understanding of How Your Body Clock Works

Listen when your body is trying to tell you something. 

If you are not a nurse, doctor, paramedic or medical professional you probably don’t know a whole lot about your body clock, right?

As a shift worker, having even the most basic level of understanding of how your body or circadian rhythm works helps you understand a few things like:

  • Why you should and shouldn’t eat at particular times
  • Why sleep is king
  • Why the sun plays a HUGE role in what’s going on in regards to your sleep cycle and digestion
  • What our bodies need when trying to adjust to a new schedule (like nights to days). 

Knowing how this “stuff” works also helps you decide how you act and what you do around your shifts.

If we make the “right” decisions it can positively impact our moods, productivity and how we communicate. If not, we can end up in a slump and feeling like a zombie. 

Let me sum up how the body clock works in a slick 50 words or so…

Your body is one big clock (actually lots of little clocks) which get signals from the light and dark to do tasks based on a particular time. Some of these clocks work best during the day and others thrive at night. 

These clocks work on 24-hour army/nurse time and experience natural peaks and lulls over this time period.

One of the night thriving processes or “clocks” is called melatonin. This is our main sleep hormone. Remember this name because you’ll want to make really good friends with it. melatonin.

No, I’m not talking about the tablet form but the real life, natural stuff your brain makes every day to help us sleep. 

Why do I bring up this night time process over the others?

Because sleep is king.

It affects absolutely everything we do.

From digestion to relationships to being productive at work. The amount of sleep we have controls it all. 

Learning how to sleep during the day while working night shift and even how to obtain 7-9 hours sleep when working 1st shift, 2nd shift or even the swing shift should be your focus. 

We are passionate about helping you achieve these goals and have written a whole bunch of posts here about it;

The bottom line… Don’t just push your health to the side

Gaining a very basic understanding of how your body work gives you the upper hand in avoiding Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD), insomnia and other health-related issues shift workers are prone too. Fatigued shift workers make more mistakes, are less attentive and cannot react as quickly as someone who is well-rested.

3. Spending Enough Time in the Sun

Before working shift work you probably didn’t appreciate the sun enough. I know I didn’t. 

I knew it gave me a good source of vitamin D and was great for my bones, which I learned through nursing school, but that was about it. 

I have since learned through life as a shift worker, the sun boosts not only our immune system and cells but it helps to “reset” or body clock particularly when on a rotating roster of switching from nights to days. 

The suns great for shift workers pretty much ALL the time except…

Between finishing night shift and getting into bed

We need those melatonin hormones to start to really fire but they can’t while it’s still light. This is why blackout blinds, eye masks and wearing blue light blocking glasses are my favorite sleep aids when working night shift.   

See our favorite shift work tools here.

In the 2 hours – 90 minutes before bed, even when working an early / 1st shift, on a day off or working swing shift.

For the same melatonin reason, avoiding the sun and also the artificial light from your phone, TV and lights before bed allows your brain to wind down naturally preparing you for sleep. 

The easiest way we do this is to wear blue light blocking glasses. Find out what they are and which glasses to choose here, via our recommended shift work tools page. 

But how can you get more sun while doing shift work?

  • Eat your lunch outside on your break – Even if you have to walk a few minutes to get there and nobody else wants to come – go anyway. Don’t just sit in the stuffy tea room.
  • Set an alarm for yourself – Every 20-30 minutes make an effort to move around the office or take a few minutes to breathe in some fresh air outside. 
  • Eat your meals outside with your family, housemates or pet where ever possible.
  • Wash the car by hand instead of using the drive-through car wash. 
  • Enjoy your days off in the sun – On your days off enjoy spending time outside in the garden, completing some home maintenance or visiting the outdoor local market. 
  • If you visit a friend for coffee, sit outside the cafe for a while instead of sitting inside.
  • Walk your dog outside instead of just playing catch in the house or under a sheltered area – If you want more tips about owning a dog and working shift work check out the post we wrote here.
  • Go for a walk when you got home or with your partner/kids whenever possible – This is not only great for vitamin D exposure but priceless for your relationships.

Think twice before simply reaching for the melatonin or vitamin D pill…

Nothing is as good as the real thing. Try and consistently implement these sun-loving strategies to naturally boost how much sunlight you are exposed to. If then and only then you need more, the tablets could be a good idea.
Blocking out the sun | 9 Shift Work Best Practices You're Probably Not Doing
Don’t be afraid of the sun in small amounts – don’t forget the sunscreen if spending extended periods outside.

4. Finding Routine Where Possible

Before you roll your eyes, I know the word “routine” doesn’t bind well with shift work…

Our shifts change quicker than the weather in Florida and it’s hard to find a consistent rhythm…but we need to try. 


We need to show our body and brain what behaviors result in a particular outcome. This allows us to sleep, have the energy to perform at work and to truly feel alive. 

But where can we find routine?

  • In the 90 minutes – 2 hours before bed.

We all have to sleep to survive, right?

Whether that is during the day while working the night shift or during the night when on a “normal” schedule. We have the opportunity to show our body clock what we want it to do and when to help us fall to sleep. 

Going to bed at the same time depending on the shift you’re working and prioritizing sleep is a must.

Not the Netflix series, the grocery store, social media or chatting to the neighbor just popping over to say hello. 

In order to find a routine, this post will help with what to eat after a night shift to ensure you can still sleep and this post has some amazing sleep aids you can use during this time. 

We are also big advocates for using sleep music, lavender and aromatherapy during this sleep routine period. They are not only scientifically proven to work in the sleeping department but we have personally seen and felt success. 

Here are our favorite diffusers (click the image below) and here is the sleep music we recommend you have a listen to.  

Baker with bread Recommended Shift Work Tools The Other Shift
  • On your days off

Particularly when working night shift you have an interesting decision to make. Do you stay on the night shift schedule, or do you switch back to days and try to be like everyone else?

For the sake of our body clocks (and not exactly our social lives), we should stick to a night shift routine.

However don’t be discouraged, I have found an epic sleeping routine for days off while on night shift which works amazingly well! It helps us not only sleep but ALSO have a social life.

We dive into it on this post, Help! Should I Stick to a Night Shift Schedule on Days Off?”

  • In your exercise routine

Exercising regularly around your shift work roster is not only great for the waistline but also for your mental health, your quality of sleep and general wellbeing.  

Make a pact with yourself to exercise daily. 

Whether it’s jumping rope for 10 minutes, creating a home workout circuit, visiting the gym or jogging with a friend after or before a shift… it’s all positive movement.   

And if you’re really pushed for time, pushups whilst the kettle is boiling, wall sits while the microwave is on or squats in the work bathroom while nobody is watching are great too. 

Exercise increases the amount of blood and oxygen pushed around your body allowing you to think clearer and be productive. 

  • In your roster (where possible)

If you are able to request your roster, you have the ability to establish a routine many other shift workers don’t.

This may be 3 early shifts in a row or sticking to the night shift for an entire month to save a bit money. See “Pros and Cons of Night Shift vs Day Shift. Who Wins?”

Whatever it is, use your roster to request or swap to find a schedule which aids in more consistency. Your body clock will love it but so will your family and pets!

A few rostering tips here:

  • Request in a clockwise direction. 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd and not 3rd, 1st, 2nd…
  • Avoid quick turnovers if you can (late shift / 2nd onto an early / 1st)
  • Request at least one weekend off per month – even if you don’t have plans 

It would seem that working a rotating roster is all doom and gloom. But it’s not. There are some huge benefits to working rotating shift work that we explore here “Essential Guide to Working a Rotating Shift Schedule”

5. Have a United and Supportive Inner Circle

  • Your immediate family
  • Your friends
  • Your pets
  • Your workmates
  • Your community

Everyone in your circle has something incredible to offer if you look hard enough.

Some will understand your shift work schedule MUCH better than others. But they all play a role in how you live your life.

Here are a few tips to working together:

  • Make friends with your work colleagues.

You don’t have to hang out every weekend, but being able to have a conversation with somebody who just “gets it” is gold. 

  • Be honest with your intermittent family.

If you miss them, say it to them and work out a way you can see or interact with them more. Maybe you start video calling them at work? Maybe you start writing notes to each other to communicate? (see this post to get started with letting writing).

Maybe you start taking better responsibilities with your roster to allow for more free time at home? There is always something we can do.

This situation is often no easy task for them either. Here are a few related posts both you and the family will enjoy. 

Man holding flowers looking at girl smiling

6. Make Time for Vacations (No Matter How Big or Small)

Establishing best practices as a shift worker is not, and should not ever be, all about work. At one point or another, we all need a break to recoup, refocus and just have a time out from everything. 

Breaks have proven to boost productivity and increase our mental health.

Carrying on from an earlier point, use your roster, your family or spouse/partner and ensure you have a vacation – even if it’s just overnight

Did you know…

Fifty-two percent of Americans said they had lost vacation time that went unused in 2017, while 24 percent said they hadn’t taken any paid leave in more than a year. (source)

You are entitled to vacation time and I am a BIG believer in using it. Both for my own mental health but also for the strength of my marriage or bonding with friends.  

You worked hard for this leave. Take it. Even if you just hang out at the house. 

reading the paper | 9 Shift Work Best Practices You're Probably Not Doing
Even if your vacation looks like this

7. Drinking Plenty of Water

This may seem a little random, but it deserves a place on the list. 

Shift workers hours constantly fight against our body clock we read about earlier, so we need to give our bodies some love in the health department. The easiest way (along with the sun) is drinking water!

Water will not only keep you feeling energized when sleepy on a night shift, as we talk about here, but it also maintains your weight and ensures our organs are doing what they are supposed to without having to work harder.

This is our favorite drink bottle to take to work as it infuses fruit and keeps the flavor interesting. See it at our recommended shift work tools page here.  

The trick is to drink before you’re thirsty.

Don’t wait for a dry mouth to trigger a reminder to drink. Keep it in sight and drink up but just go easy in the hour before bed because you’ll be up needing the loo in no time!

8. Avoid Adding Garbage Foods Into Your Shopping Cart

If it goes in the basket, you’ll eat it…so don’t just casually throw it in the cart and think you’ll deal with the repercussions later

Everything in moderation is totally fine but biting into a thickly iced (yes, delicious!) donut daily… it’s too much. 

Here are two tricks to use while at the grocery store between shifts:

  • Carry a smaller basket rather than push a big trolley. Now you’ll only grab the essentials. 
  • Stick to the outside isles as the sugary, processed treats are usually kept towards the middle of the store

Are you setting yourself up for success?

Food fuels the brain. So make sure your fuel is the right type for your vehicle. If you want to be awake for 12 hours and provide epic nursing care (for example), make sure your diet gives you the base and tools to make this happen.
Person pushing shopping cart full of alcohol bottles Best Shift Work Practices | The Other Shift
Your shopping cart probably shouldn’t look like this…

9. Embrace Change and New Ideas

You’ve probably worked out that shift work throws normality out the window. This means a change in the way you do things is not a might but a when kind of situation.

Here is where you will see and feel change while working shift work:

  • When, what and how much you eat
  • Where you sleep and what you use to help you sleep
  • When and how you exercise 
  • What you drink and when you drink it 
  • How and when you communicate with your partner/spouse and kids
  • When you see your friends and how long for

Scared? Don’t be. 

The opportunities for shift workers are huge, which you can explore here, “13 Advantages of Shift Work for Employees.”

The key is to embrace these new changes, be curious but not judgemental to what others are doing and let shift work lead you to look at life from an entirely new perspective.

Bonus: Setting High Standards for Yourself as a Shift Worker

You may have read or heard whispers that shift workers are prone to some pretty nasty health problems.

While yes, we are at a higher chance of being diagnosed, it doesn’t mean we are automatically doomed once we start shift work. 

But what it does mean is this…

  • You have to look after yourself before you can be any good for everyone else. From work to home life.
  • If you say you’re going to meal plan then, do it
  • If you normally workout after waking from night shift but you’re feeling tired, push through and go anyway
  • If you tell yourself you’re not ordering takeout on night shift, don’t do it
  • If you say you’re going to set your alarm 20 minutes earlier to have dinner with your family – get out of bed
  • If you’re driving home from work and your feeling tired – pull over.. Read, How to Stop Falling Asleep While Driving after Night Shift

I think you get the point…. Do better and live more disciplined not only for yourself but for your family and work colleagues.


Summary: 9 Shift Work Best Practices You’re Probably Not Doing

The best practices for shift work are pretty broad but essentially revolve around knowing how your body clock works and why we need to prioritize our health both physically and mentally by finding a routine. Do this and you’ll get much more form your every day!

What are your shift work best practices to keep the wheels turning even at 4am?


Emma signature | theothershift.com

Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

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