Man working night shift

Shift work and mental health

Have you ever spent time employed as a shift worker or found yourself working nights? If so, you’ll no doubt have first-hand understanding of why it’s so unlike regular 9-5 work.

The lack of sunlight, sleep deprivation and a lack of activity during ‘normal’ hours can make night shift work or rotating shifts feel distinctively otherworldly. Between the tired mental ‘fog’ or sluggishness and the lack of ‘normal’ social contact, night shift can start to feel like you’re living in something like a time warp.

It’s hardly surprising that shift workers are more likely to consume stimulants (coffee, cigarettes) and sedatives (alcohol, sleeping pills). They are also more likely have a poor diet, do less exercise and generally get less quality sleep. The outcome of prolonged work of this nature can be hazardous to your physical health and also affect your wellbeing and mental health.


How can shift work affect your wellbeing?

Proper sleep is vital for your mental health and anyone who goes without it knows its effects only too well.

Shift workers, however, have to contend with more than just the risk of being woken up during the day.

The human brain is astoundingly complex in how it controls body functions. Consequently, when irregular rhythms or a lack of sunlight disrupt the complicated bio-chemical process that helps regulate sleep (known as the circadian rhythm), the result can be detrimental to your wellbeing.

Here are just some ways in which prolonged sleep-deprivation or a lack of sunlight can affect you.

  • Sluggishness and lack of energy
  • Feeling like you’re in a ‘fog’ or constantly sleepy
  • Insomnia or inability to get to sleep
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble with memory
  • Being accident prone
  • Lack of motivation or lack of desire to perform
  • Aggression, anger, short-temperedness or irritability
  • Anxiety or prolonged worries
  • Intense or stronger feelings of sadness or depression
  • Trouble coping in social situations or in relationships
  • Weight gain or obesity
  • Inability to enjoy or appreciate fun things you used to do
  • Feeling helpless or feelings of hopelessness
  • Sensitivity to sunlight.

5 ways to look after your wellbeing

There are many ways you can improve your wellbeing, regardless of whether you’ve just started or spent many years doing shift work. Here are some good tips to get you started.


1) Look after your physical safety

The important thing is to look after your physical safety. Don’t let how you feel lead you to taking risks. That means always making sure you’re ok to drive.

Consider cycling, taking public transport (if there’s a timetable that works for you) or paying for a ride if you’re not feeling right. If possible, look into sharing a ride with someone. Not only will it reduce the strain from driving but you’ll be more alert by having someone with you.

The same goes for while you’re at work. Be mindful of how focussed you are and, where possible, speak up or take steps to minimise risk, both to yourself and others.


2) Try to stay off the smokes / energy drinks / grog / pills

Caffeine is a stimulant. It’s also the most widely consumed drug on earth. It’s especially popular among shift workers given that staying alert during odd hours tends to be a key part of the job.

As anyone who has drunk too much coffee before bed knows, the same chemicals that can make you feel alert can also interfere with your sleep. They can also increase feelings of nervousness and anxiety and interfere with concentration.

You might be surprised by just how much caffeine is in some beverages (and even some foods). If caffeine is a problem with your sleep, then consider lighter alternatives, like tea instead of brewed coffee or (and always in moderation) regular soft drink instead of energy drinks.

At the other end of the scale is grog. Being a widely accepted part of Aussie culture, it may be tempting to use alcohol as a way to unwind or try to sleep after a shift. However, while booze may help you get to sleep it is known to interfere with the quality of sleep.

Other common drugs consumed among shift workers, whether to stay awake or for getting to sleep, include nicotine, alertness (e.g. caffeine) pills, sleeping pills, and non-prescription substances (i.e. narcotics).

Since any drug consumed in sufficient amounts can result in dependence, consider what the long-term effects are on your health. For example, are the smokes essential for you to do your job or is it that they’ve become a habit? Do you rely need the booze to get to sleep? Can you do your job by cutting down on the coffee?


3) Physical activity

Exercise may be the last thing on your mind before a shift or after getting home tired. However, regular physical activity has long been known to provide all sorts of mental health benefits, including better sleep.

Exercise doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym or jogging for 5km. Even a simple and brisk walk can help you unwind and clear your mind.

Of course, there are all the associated physical health benefits, from feeling more energetic to reducing the rate of heart disease.

As for the best part? It’s free and generally easy to do.


4) Eat well

Junk food may fulfil an immediate urge when you’re feeling tired or down. It may even be a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety, what with all that tasty salt, grease or sugar providing an immediate ‘hit’ or reward. However, the long-term problems of a poor diet are well-known, and can range from increased risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes to lower energy levels and increased likelihood of anxiety and depression.

To eat better, consider preparing your own meals, cutting down on the snacks and soft drink (fruit is a great alternative), or even finding other ways to deal with stress.

Even without the unhealthy food, digestive problems are quite common in shift workers. So consider smaller and lighter portions to stave off drowsiness and even going for more easily digestible foods like rice, bread, salad and veggies.

Apart from the health benefits, you may quickly find that you’ve got more money to spend on other things.


5) Talk it over

The simple act of talking about your worries or concerns can make a difference to how you feel about them. If something’s bothering you, deciding to talk it over could greatly improve your outlook.

If shift work is getting in the way of regular contact with your friends, family or support network, then consider reaching out and getting some free professional counselling. NQ Connect counsellors can be reached 24 7, any day of the year. The person you talk to is a qualified professional counsellor who is there to listen and help you cope.


Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.