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Night shifts and sleep: top tips for warehouse operatives

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Lisa Artis, Deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity, explains why encouraging healthy sleep hygiene is crucial for shift workers in the logistics sector.

Bonnie Cliff (BC): Before we get into sleep hygiene, I'd like to know a bit more about how you came to be in the role you're in now. Did you always envisage working in a health charity? 

Lisa Artis (LA): Absolutely not! I've fallen into it along the way. I've always been interested in health, but I did my degree in PR and Marketing. I was working for a company called the National Federation and they asked me to head up an arm of it called The Sleep Council.  

At that point, I'd been working with Vicki [Beevers, CEO, The Sleep Charity] at what was called originally The Children's Sleep Charity. While we were working on that, Vicki and I both wanted to expand our respective charities. We said, well, why do we not just join forces together instead of both trying to be competitive sleep organizations? We've always worked so closely, so we merged the two organizations to become The Sleep Charity in July 2020.  

I feel privileged to be in the sleep world. I think it's a fascinating subject. There's still lots to learn, and I'm excited by the opportunities at The Sleep Charity to come. 

BC: I'm sure we all know that sleep is important, but can you explain how sleep can affect our overall health and wellbeing? 

LA: Sleep is so critical to good physical and mental health and wellbeing. It’s often overlooked in comparison to some of the other health agendas that are out there. We have quite a lot around the change for life, which talks about diet and exercise, and sleep often gets overlooked. But it's so important from a physical side of things, it helps us to fight off minor coughs, cold ailments and from the mental side of it, sleep improves our mood and our resilience. 

There’s lots of research out there to show that lack of sleep does have some serious health consequences. Things like Alzheimer's, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and also obesity. And it's also strongly linked to depression and anxiety. So, it can affect our stress levels and our resilience. We need to be looking at sleep as part of that approach to improving our health and wellbeing. It’s not just looking at what we drink and how much we exercise; those things are important, but how well we sleep really does contribute to that whole pyramid of healthy wellbeing. 

BC: Everyone has been more aware of both their physical and their mental health in the last couple of years as a result of COVID. But have you noticed any emerging trends in sleep issues as a result of the pandemic? 

LA: It's been so strange. What we saw right back at the start of those early months of the pandemic in 2020 was that there was a real split of people. There were those who were sleeping worse: you can well imagine that people were sleeping worse because this pandemic was something that was almost unheard of. It was affecting people's routines. It was affecting how they work. People were losing their jobs. People were also extremely worried about their own health and their family’s health, hoping that people didn't get hospitalised. So, there was a large cohort of people whose sleep patterns literally just went out of the window 

There was another large cohort of people who were sleeping better because of the pandemic. And the reasons behind that were, for some people, those who may have things like a lengthy commute into work, suddenly realized they could get this extra hour in bed, so they weren't having to get up at, say, 5:00 AM to catch a train or to drive a long journey. So, we found that some people slept better because being out of the house creates a quite a lot of anxiety for them. Being at home meant their anxiety levels were lower, so again they were sleeping better. 

We are now returning back to normality and there's still quite a mix of hybrid working, which I think has worked quite well. But we've definitely seen that more and more people are taking a sleep a bit more seriously. I think the pandemic did highlight how important it was even for people who've always slept well. Some of those people had a realisation of ‘oh, my sleep can be broken’. I would hate to go through the pandemic again, but it has highlighted the importance of sleep. 

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BC: I think it's interesting that you mentioned these different cohorts, because not everybody needs the same amount of sleep. Are there any specific risks around sleep that affect shift workers like warehouse operatives? 

LA: We know that daytime sleep is less efficient than nighttime sleep. There are risks around sleep deprivation for shift workers, and those risks can be around things like lack of concentration, decision making, problem solving, slower reaction times and an increased likelihood of errors. we need to be looking at how we can improve sleep in the workplace because long term insomnia reduces our ability to be the best we can be. It is a major workplace risk and a big contributor to accidents, injuries and even death at times. 

When you are working shifts, speak to your manager about taking breaks where you can and look at what you're eating during the night because we know that has a huge impact. If you can power nap before a night shift, that can be useful. But really, it’s about strengthening that body clock and keeping as regular a pattern as you can and being mindful of your own sleep. And even if you are sleeping well, I would just say to keep an eye on your sleep. Even if it's just once a month, just think: am I still sleeping as well as I did last month? And if you're not, that's the time to do something about it. Because the longer you leave it, the harder it is to break any bad habits. 

BC: I'd like to go back to the point you made about making errors and slower reaction times. There’s a significant portion of the logistics industry who operate machinery or drive forklift trucks and HGVs - are there any specific risks that they face? 

LA: There are definitely risks around handling machinery or driving vehicles. There is research out there that shows after like a night shift, levels of fatigue produce a similar effect as if you were at the legal drink limit. So, the risk of accidents is significantly increased. We’ve got to be mindful not just of people driving to work, but also what they're doing when they’re at work. If they are driving for their job, what are we doing to help those colleagues? Driver fatigue is huge at the moment, and we need to be thinking about how to factor in breaks to combat sleep deprivation.  

BC: I want to go back to how we can mitigate sleep deprivation in the workplace. How can shift managers address issues around sleep, which their employees face? 

LA: We often find that people are quite hesitant to talk about any sleep difficulties that they're having because they fear being judged. They're worried that people are just going to think that they stayed up late binge-watching Netflix or that they didn't put the right principles in place to get a good night's sleep. But it should be taken as seriously as any other health issue that an employee might have. And at the end of the day, most people want to sleep. There aren’t many people who don't want to sleep! We should be doing everything we can to look after people and address it properly. 

I think there are lots of things we can do around flexible working hours and having things like quiet resting areas. For some people, it could be around discouraging emails and calls outside of work hours and even putting on things like sleep workshops or sleep courses and sign posting resources. Large companies might have occupational health departments, so the staff in there could be key enablers of this. They can spot those early warning signs and hopefully make alterations in the workplace. 

BC: Could you tell us a bit about the Sleep Charity’s workplace training courses?  

LA: Last year, we launched our workplace sleep ambassadors course and this was something we wanted to do for a couple of years, really. It was all about getting ambassadors in the workplace who could advocate for healthy sleep. We launched it as a pilot program to begin with, and it's since then it's taken off substantially. 

It’s all about sleep education; getting people to understand the importance of it, but also how easily sleep can be broken and the effects it can have when you’re working shifts. It is a mixture of independent study and then a live session. And then there's a fantastic resource toolkit at the end which what we want the ambassadors to bring back to the workplace and start implementing their own workshops or using the surveys to get employees talking about sleep. We’re not visit training people to be to be doctors or medical professionals, but it's just getting people talking about the subject 

BC: To wrap up, I'd like to know your top tips for developing better sleep habits. 

LA: There's lots of different tips out there, but I think if we can try and create some good routines around sleep, it means that if your sleep does get broken for any reason, it's still resilient. You need to make sure you’re going to bed when you feel sleepy: there's no point trying to go to sleep when you're not tired, because that will just lead to you tossing and turning in bed. 

What’s also important is trying to wake up at a similar time. I'm not talking to the to the minute, but generally within an hour either side of it. It really does strengthen your internal body clock, also called the circadian rhythm. You want to be looking at making your sleep environment perfect. It needs to be cool; we are talking around 16 to 18 degrees Celsius. It needs to be quiet, so we need to block out any external noise. 

The place in which you sleep needs to be dark: darkness is vital for sleep because when you are in a dark environment, your melatonin increases, which is what you need to feel sleepy.  

Moving onto diet, I would suggest cutting caffeine out from the mid-afternoon if you are particularly sensitive to it. But if you're not particularly sensitive, you can continue to have that cup of tea later on in the day or even in the early evening. I know there's a lot out there about alcohol and I'm all for a little tipple with your evening meal! What you don't want to be doing is using alcohol as a sleep aid. If you're using alcohol to make you fall asleep more quickly, then you need to cut that out. 

As long as you are sleeping well, I don't feel like we need to cut out everything. But again, it's just thinking about what you are doing in the hour all before bed and finding a routine that works for you. So don't feel like you have to do like 101 things before bedtime. Find the activities that make you feel quite calm and relaxed: whether that's a bath or listening to music or a podcast, reading a book. Some people enjoy meditation or other mindfulness practices. It's just a matter of finding what works for you.  

TAGS: Safety
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