8 Useful Hacks for Surviving Night Shift With No Sleep

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Trying to survive night shift with no sleep is relentless. It seems that when you’re exhausted, no matter what you do to get through the shift, it’s always short-lived, leaving you scrambling for the next energy boost. 

Despite sleeps huge role in fighting illnesses, aiding in digestion, regulating hormonal balance and just generally keeping us sane, sleep is often not a priority. We are so busy juggling life as a night shift worker that our own health, including our sleep, slips to the side. 

There is no substitute for sleep, but there are some hacks you can try when feeling tired while working the night shift. Here are 8 which we consistently use and rely on.   

If you’d prefer to watch rather than read, this video will help you out.

1. Keep The Lights On During Your Night Shift

I know it’s tempting to turn off all the lights and create a night time atmosphere, but try and resist. 

Important hormones like melatonin, control not only our sleep and when we fall to sleep, but they also play a large role in our body clocks circadian rhythm.

Melatonin levels rise while it’s dark, as this is when we are supposed to sleep and fall during the day when the sun is shining. 

Night shift workers are confusing this fine-tuned routine, so we need to keep the lights on to trick the melatonin into thinking it’s day time.

We don’t want these hormones to kick in just yet because we are working and need to be productive. 

Once we get home the opposite applies. Turn off all the lights, pull down the blackout blinds and slide on your blue light blocking glasses. We are now ready for the sleep hormones to start doing their thing!

If you want more information about the tools we use to best wind down after a night shift from blackout blinds to eye masks, check out our shift work tool page here.

The bottom line regarding lights and night shift…
Despite being dark outside, turn on the lights over your direct workspace or work area and leave them on throughout the entire night.

Dan wearing Aviator blue light blocking glasses from Swanwick Sleep – see website here.
Remember to keep your blue light blocking glasses on even when brushing your teeth! See what other Sleep aids are available from Swanwick Sleep – here

2. Stay Away From Pasta and Pizza

Despite being sleep-deprived and feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus, you have to make food choices that won’t further aid the slump.  

Bringing the leftover pizza from home or ordering a fresh one via take-out is a sure way to make this happen. The same goes for pasta and carb-heavy type meals similar to this. 

The issue with these foods overnight is two-fold.

  1. Our digestive system takes a different, slower role overnight (but this varies depending on the cycle of sleep you’re in). This means the digestive system is simply not ready to break down these large meals and fats quickly. These types of foods require “all hands on deck” in regards to the digestive system which is simply not available overnight. This can lead to feelings of bloating, nausea and stomach pain, but also lethargy and tiredness.
  2. These high carb foods cause a “rise in blood sugar, followed by a plunge in insulin levels, which can cause fatigue and weakness” (source). The high sugar and flour content can also cause drowsiness and why we should leave these for the weekend or our days off.

Instead, we recommend eating smaller, filling snacks throughout the night rather than one big meal.

Such as:

  • Raw veggie sticks and hummus like celery, bell peppers, carrots and snow peas if you need some crunch
  • Tuna and crackers.
  • Fruit and nut (avoid the roasted type of nuts)
  • Chia pudding (pre-made the day before)
  • Devilled eggs or whole eggs.
  • String cheese.
  • Celery and peanut butter (bring a small container so you don’t eat the entire jar!)
  • A whole-grain sandwich 
  • Dark chocolate (look for types over 70% cocoa)

Use the sun to judge when you should eat your larger meals.  Enjoy your “main meal” before you leave for a shift. Somewhere between 7-11pm is recommended. Any later and your digestive system is starting to slow down.   

Here is a post we recently published titled, “When Should I Eat on Night Shift? which goes into a lot more detail.

Cereal bowl with candy Night shift no sleep | 8 Useful Hacks for Surviving Night Shift With No Sleep
Breakfast anyone? This may look tasty but let’s leave it until your days off…

3. Chew Gum

It seems too simple, right?

Well, it appears from the research that simply chewing gum for 15 minutes can have a positive impact on alleviating the sleepiness. (source)

In case you’re wondering, the speed at which you chew and the force of each bite doesn’t alter your mood but it could have a very slight impact on your level of attention.

Chewing gum also showed a higher rate of productivity and fewer mistakes when working. (source)

Personally, chewing gum also makes me hungry, so get the snacks ready!

8 Useful Hacks for Surviving Night Shift With No Sleep | The Other Shift
Please share with your night shift friends!

4. Nap on Your Break

The only true, sustainable way to overcome night shift with no sleep is to actually sleep…

I know that’s not very helpful, especially if you have trouble sleeping during the day. But if there is an opportunity to sneak away somewhere on your break and have a nap then I recommended you embrace it. 

Having a nap between 5-15 minutes has proven to have an almost immediate effect which can last up to 3 hours. These quick naps reduce sleepiness and improve focus and performance which is exactly what you need. (source)

If you don’t have time for a longer nap over 30 minutes, that’s actually good because these extended naps can leave you feeling groggy or suffering from “sleep inertia” for a short period after waking. This feeling does settle after a short while though. 

These longer naps have been proven to give you an even bigger energy boost, but most night shift workers cannot function without mistakes when waiting for this “grogginess” to settle. 

Related Post: The Night Shift Power Nap: What You Need to Know

The bottom line here is to embrace every moment you’ve got for a quick nap. It’s amazing what 5-10 minutes can do. 

To make this nap a reality, there are a few approaches that could work. 

Sleep in your car.
For some, this could be a safety issue and not recommended if your car is parked off the work premises. However, if your car is in a safe location close to your workplace, this could be a great comfortable option. 

In a meeting room.
Depending on your environment there may be a meeting room which is only used during the day. This could be the ideal, quiet spot for a quick bit of shut-eye. 

In the tea room.
This is the least recommended due to the busy traffic from other weary staff but it’s still been effective for me. Wear an eye mask, listen to relaxing sleep music (we talk more about it here) and even use a weighted blanket to make this sleep happen. 

Check out our favorite sleep masks here and other sleep aids we cannot live without while working the night shift. 

Related Post: Should Your Nap on Night Shift?

5. Drink Caffeine…Until Midnight

“How do I handle night shift? Just drink LOTS of coffee”

This seems to be the most common advice I hear and read online in regards to staying awake on night shift with no sleep.

While I am a big advocate for drinking caffeine, particularly tea, I don’t recommend it if you have under 6 hours to go until you intend on sleeping.

Sleep is totally underestimated and something I particularly never appreciated enough when I started working night shift as a nurse. It affects not only our mood and productivity around work, but also impacts how we communicate and function out of a work uniform.   

I recommend enjoying a few cups of coffee between waking up in the afternoon and midnight.

Then after this time, switch to tea, even the caffeinated tea for an hour or so. The energy released will be much longer and more sustainable rather than the coffee “hit” feeling.  

Now energy drinks are a whole separate ball game.

I know these drinks are a super popular choice for night shift workers, but recent research from The American Heart Association concluded that

drinking 32 ounces of an energy drink in a short timespan may increase blood pressure and the risk of electrical disturbances in the heart.” (source)

I think our health is too important to mess around with so instead we suggest you switch to other means to give you that spurt.

Caffeine can stay in our system for up to 12 hours and hence why we recommend switching to a decaffeinated drink instead if you have about 6 hours of your shift to go.

Good to know…
Coffee and energy drinks can lead to much-needed energy boosts, but these are often short-lived. The “lows” post drinking these liquids can be tough to get through when you’re already exhausted so we recommend trying a different poison – like water!

[VIDEO] – In this video, we talk about the one thing night shift workers could do better… If you’re a coffee lover you’ll want to check this out.

6. Drink Plenty of Ice Cold Water 

So what about water?

This is the only drink we can consume at unlimited amounts, which doesn’t come with a warning label. This fact alone makes it rare and we recommend boosting your intake if you currently don’t drink much water. 

A dehydrated brain works harder to accomplish the same job in comparison to a hydrated brain. Why? Due to less water traveling around the body, there is also less oxygen flow to the brain and heart, causing them to work harder for the same outcome.

How much water should I drink?

As a general rule, women should be consuming approximately 91 ounces (2.7 liters) of total water and men approximately 125 ounces daily (3.7 liters). On the other hand, you should not drink more than 27-33 ounces (0.8-1.0 liters) of water per hour. (source)

In my experience when working night shift, the easiest way to stay alert and fight those tired feelings is to drink ice cold water and a lot of it… all night.

To make this easy, we recommend the BEAST tumbler. Check out our video review here

If you need a boost of flavor, add some lemon, lime or mint. The drink bottle we recommend here on our shift work tools page does a great job to infuse these fruits while avoiding the pulp and pips.

The trick to staying hydrated, keeping your kidneys happy, preventing lethargy and headaches on the night shift is to drink water before you feel thirsty.

Keep your drink bottle in a place you can always see it as a good reminder to drink up!

My other tip is if you forget to drink during the night and remember once you get home, drink a glass or two before hopping into bed, but don’t go overboard. The loo will be a necessity within no time at all!

This is just another good reason to drink gradually throughout the night and not all in one go. 

Below is a great video by TED Talks on why we need to drink more water and what happens if we don’t.

Good to know…
While drinking cold water can help us feel alert, drinking hot to warm water helps to break down food faster. It also “reduces the risk of constipation by supporting regular bowel movements”. (source)

7. Have a Cold Shower

This approach sounds awful I know, but this hack to staying awake on night shift can work a treat.

It will speed up your heart rate and give you a large energy boost, leaving you feeling more awake and alert than before.

This is obviously work place-dependent as you need a shower and towels but having a cold shower can really work to boost your energy levels if the facilities are available. 

8. Stay Busy

Focus on the most important tasks first while you still have the stamina. Then after these jobs are done and dusted, keep yourself busy by:

  • Cleaning the office
  • Organizing the filing system
  • Check the first aid supply kit and make sure the equipment has not expired
  • For the nurses, check the blood sugar and ketone machines 
  • Make a list of the stock that needs ordering
  • Walk the stairs instead of taking the lift if you need to deliver a message or equipment to somebody
  • Workout in the office or use your break do to a mini-workout. Russian twists with a ream of paper and wall squats anyone?
  • Take a break from the screen every 15-20 minutes. Can you pop outside for a few minutes if it’s safe and well lit? Simply changing your environment can work wonders for your energy levels. Again, set an alarm for yourself and do something different. 

We have an entire list of things you can do when you’re bored on night shift. The post is titled, “Bored on Night Shift? How to Stay Busy Without the Internet” and it’s definitely worth checking out for more unique ideas.

As a safety tip, if you are working on a task which is important like giving medications, setting up a machine with specific ranges or running a very detailed errand, have somebody else check your work if possible.

Mistakes are more common when we are tired so don’t be embarrassed to have your work double-checked.

Good to know…
Don’t get too comfortable sitting in one place. Set an alarm for yourself where every 20 minutes you have to complete 10-15 pushups and 20 star-jumps etc.Keep moving and stay occupied until it’s time to go home.

Below is a video of Sam Wood, one of my favorite personal trainers showing you a few exercises you could easily do in the office when your feeling tired. You could do even just one of these when your alarm goes off every 20 minutes.

Bonus Tip: Call In Sick

Yes, you read correctly. 

Did you know being awake for 17-19 hours straight is the same as having 0.05 alcohol in your system?

After this time we can start to hallucinate (normally seen after 24 hours of being sleep deprived) and totally lose touch with reality (source). Is this really how you want to feel at work for 10+ hours? 

Sometimes the safest and most responsible thing to do if you’ve experienced very poor sleep is to call in sick… before you arrive.

Don’t wait until you are 2 hours into your shift and you need to go home. By doing this you are often creating a logistical nightmare for somebody to cover your shift so it’s best to bite the bullet and just call in sick ahead of time. 

In a lot of shift working jobs, decisions need to be made quickly which often have a significant impact. Nurses, doctors, police personnel and also paramedics just to name a few, need to bring their A-game to work, consistently.

There is often little room for error and simply calling in sick because you are not safe to do your job is better than coming in and not being fit to perform. 

The catch though is working out why you are not getting enough sleep. If this is you, I want you to really think about your situation and what’s getting in your way of you obtaining 7-9 hours of sleep. 

Is the noise in your house too loud? Can you relocate to another section of your home?

Is your room too bright? Have you thought about blackout blinds to create your own “cave”? See our favorite blinds here on our recommended shift work tools page.

Are you prioritizing sleep when you get home? Or are you bringing your phone into bed with you and watching a lot of TV before sleep? Maybe it’s time you consider wearing blue light blocking glasses in the 90 minutes before bed? These are the glasses we mean here (which we wear every night).  

Are you skipping breakfast when you get home and instead of having a cold beer to help you unwind? It’s time to force yourself to eat even a small meal which is naturally full of melatonin, the sleep hormone we spoke about earlier to prevent waking up hungry.

As for the alcohol, you may fall to sleep quicker but you’ll need to use the bathroom frequently after falling to sleep. Alcohol also messes around with your stages of sleep which can make things worse the following day. 

[VIDEO] – 7 Sleep Tips for Night Shift Workers

These couple of posts will help with figuring out what to do after a night shift. 

So when should I call in sick?
As there is no law or research done here, it’s best to listen to your own body. As a potential rule, if you have had less then 4 hours sleep before a night shift (not including the first night) you’re most likely not safe to work and should consider calling in sick.


Night shift no sleep | Man with Tie around head
You don’t have to feel and look like this guy just because you work night shift!

Summary: 8 Useful Hacks for Surviving Night Shift With No Sleep

There is no sustainable substitute for sleep when working the night shift. But we hope the suggestions given throughout the post can boost your energy levels in the tough times and keep you productive and focused, until you get a chance to hop back into bed after work!

How do you stay focused when feeling tired on night shift? Let me know in the comments below.


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.

Road at night | night shift with no sleep
8 Useful Hacks for Surviving Night Shift With No Sleep | The Other Shift

Emma @ The Other Shift

Hey there! I'm Emma Smith a passionate, Registered Nurse from Australia. Together with my husband Daniel, we run The Other Shift. Our sole aim is to help shift workers and those on unusual schedules find balance between work and life. I understand the challenges of fitting in exercise, maintaining relationships and getting enough quality sleep, but I'm excited to show you that it’s possible to do shift work and still thrive. Read more about us and our story here.

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