When you work in hospitality, it might not always be easy to get enough sleep or to sleep well when you finally get a chance to put your head down on the pillow. This is especially true if you work the typical hours of a late-night bartender, waiter, or chef. Gigs like these usually involve starting late in the afternoon and finishing even later in the evening. This can make it hard to switch off and get quality sleep after you’ve hung up your apron and called it a day.
I know I had a few nights in my hospo years where I woke up shaking imaginary cocktails and stressing about the tabs I forgot to close off at the end of my shift.
Anyway, the point of this article is to help those of you who are working in the hospitality industry and struggling to get the restful sleep that you need and deserve.
How can hospitality work affect my sleep?
Hospitality is an industry characterised by atypical working hours and rotating shifts. Generally, we can adapt ourselves to a schedule like this for a little while without experiencing any serious repercussions. However, our bodies are optimised to be alert during the day and automatically prime themselves for sleep in the evening. This hard-wired aspect of human physiology is driven by our circadian rhythm and has evolved over many, many years.
For people with a job in hospitality, this presents a bit of an inconvenience. The work frequently requires you to push against the tide of your internal biological clock and can leave you feeling pretty flat and worn out as a result.
Consequently, if you’re a career hospo worker who’s been grappling with evening work and a rotating roster for a while, you may begin to notice a decline in mental or physical health.
Why does sleep matter?
Sleep is the bedrock of our general wellbeing and can cause a variety of undesirable consequences if it falls out of sync. Sleep deprivation can lead to reduced productivity, poorer performance, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and mental health issues such as depression.
Additionally, it’s sometimes associated with medical problems such as heart disease and reduced immunity to viruses. This is an especially important factor to consider given the rapidly developing situation with COVID-19.
Sleep Physiology and You
What happens when we sleep?
Sleep was once thought to be a period of total inactivity. We now know that there are measurable body and brain changes that occur during sleep. These processes are immensely important to our general health and ensure that we’re recalibrated and fresh for the following day.
So, what happens to the body when we sleep?
To answer this question, we first need to understand the different components of sleep. Basically, sleep is divided into two parts. REM sleep, and non-REM sleep.
REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, is described as the “dream period” and is characterised by intense brain activity. It’s labelled REM because our eyes actively move during this period.
Non-REM sleep is a period of restful sleep that consists of four stages. As the sleeper moves through these stages, the body becomes more relaxed and bodily functions such as the heartbeat slow down.
When a person goes through all of the Non-REM stages, they then begin REM sleep. After the REM sleep stage, the person will start over with Stage 2 of non-REM and repeat the cycle again.
When one goes through all of the sleep stages, they’re said to have gone through a full sleep cycle. The average person experiences 4 or 5 of these in a night.
The sleep cycle: broken down
- Stage 1. This stage is described as very light sleep, with slow eye movement and some muscle activity. During this time, breathing and pulse become more even and we may experience vivid imagery. People sometimes experience a falling sensation followed by sudden muscle contractions. If awakened at this time the person would deny that they had even been asleep.
- Stage 2. During this stage, eye movements stop and brain waves, as well as bodily functions, slow down. The person is asleep, but not deeply. There may be occasional bursts of rapid waves called “sleep spindles” and certain muscles may twitch during this stage. If the eyelids were opened during this stage of sleep, the person would not be able to see.
- Stage 3 and 4: Deep Sleep. These are stages of deep sleep from which people do not easily awaken. There is little eye movement or muscle activity. The person has only very slow brain waves, called delta waves, interspersed with smaller, faster waves. This stage appears to be important to physical body restoration and repair.
- Stage 5: REM Sleep. During REM sleep, heart rate, eye movement and breathing increase. REM sleep is thought to be necessary for memory consolidation, revitalising brain chemical functions, as well as psychological well-being. Most dreams occur during REM sleep.
What’s the normal length of sleep?
If a person feels well-rested and can function optimally during the day, then they’re probably getting enough sleep. However, under abnormal demands like stress and mental ill-health a person may temporarily need a greater amount of sleep. The key is to listen to your body and adjust your sleep schedule accordingly.
Sleep Tips for Hospo Workers
The basics of sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is a crucially important part of getting better sleep. Basically, sleep hygiene is a term used to summarise the habits and routines that we perform around or immediately before bedtime. It can also include activities from earlier in the day that are known to have an impact on sleep quality.
Below are some important things to consider if you are looking at improving your sleep hygiene:
- Maintain a regular bedtime. Consistency is key. Our bodies learn through repetition and operate best when our bedtime is more or less the same every night.
- Maintain a regular waking time. Try getting up at the same time each day even if you have not had a restful night of sleep.
- Avoid napping during the day. This can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep during your main sleep period. If you really need a nap, try to limit it to no more than 15 minutes.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise can be a great way to relieve stress and can improve sleep quality in the evening. However, avoid strenuous exercise in the evening, since it increases body temperature and activates the nervous system.
- Maintain a quiet and comfortable bedroom. Find a comfortable bedroom temperature and maintain it throughout the night. 18.3 degrees (give or take) is recommended for good sleep. Additionally, be sure there are no disruptive lights or sounds. Investing in a good pair of blackout blinds or a sleeping mask couldn’t hurt either!
- Avoid heavy meals before bedtime. A light snack may help you sleep. However, generally, digesting food interferes with relaxation and can negatively impact sleep quality.
- Avoid caffeine and other stimulants. Caffeine is metabolised rather slowly by the body and can remain in the system long after you’ve had your afternoon cup of coffee. Try to cut out caffeine at least six hours before bedtime.
- Minimise use of nicotine or alcohol. Both of these can have a negative impact on sleep quality and can make us feel worse the morning after.
- Wind down for an hour before bedtime. Do something relaxing after your shift to de-stress and prime your body for sleep.
- Get enough sunlight. It’s beneficial to spend 30 minutes outside each day, in natural sunlight. Additionally, you may consider taking a vitamin D supplement if it’s difficult to get out in the sun.
Developing a sleep health calendar that you’ll actually stick to
Providing sleep hygiene advice and telling you to go to bed at a reasonable hour is all well and good. However, anyone who’s worked in the industry for a while is probably rolling their eyes
It’s important to acknowledge the fact that most of the sleep advice we get is tailored to people with 9 to 5 jobs and more conventional daily routines. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate well to the night owls that live and work in the world of hospitality. So, with this in mind, let’s start talking about a sleep health calendar that hospo folks can implement realistically in their day-to-day routines and actually stick to!
The Time Shifter app
When you’re developing a sleep health calendar, time management is absolutely imperative to your long-term success. You need to have a bird’s eye view of your day, so you can realistically plan and schedule sleep time, in addition to exercise, regular meals, and relaxation.
To accomplish this, we recommend using the Time Shifter app.
Time Shifter was developed with shift workers in mind and provides evidence-based sleep health recommendations that apply to the ever-changing roster of the user. Basically, all you need to do is input your weekly shifts into the app, answer some questions about your sleep preferences, and the app will take care of the rest automatically. If an app like this isn’t your vibe, you could also consider keeping it simple and using something like Google Calendar to time block your day. This would involve manually creating calendars and scheduling events for each of the sleep health factors mentioned above.
For example, you could schedule 7 hours of sleep each night and 30 minutes of exercise three days a week. You could even schedule a weekly ‘cheat day’ where you go out for post-shift drinks
Ultimately, the goal of each of these approaches is to develop a time management system that works for you personally. Something that’s based on your specific roster and meets your individual needs. This may take a while, and there may be teething problems early in the process – habit formation is tricky business after all! However, you shouldn’t let minor setbacks discourage you from improving your sleep health and building a sustainable routine that you can stick to.
Hospo Sleep Quality Journal
During the next week or so, you may consider using this Sleep Quality Journal to log your efforts to get better sleep. This will help you figure out what works and what doesn’t work for you and will enable you to make tweaks to the calendar that we’ve just developed. Gradually, you’ll be able to construct a sustainable morning and evening routine that fits your schedule and optimises your chances of getting deep, restful sleep. If a pen and paper sleep diary sounds like a bit of a drag, you could consider using a mobile journal app to record your progress digitally. This would allow you to create a template for the information above and would send reminders to your phone for when you need to do a check-in.
For Mac and iPhone users, Day One is your best bet to keep tabs on things. It’s got a really slick interface and will help motivate you to keep going with the habit. If you’re an Android user, then Daylio is a good alternative. This app has all the functionality of Day One, as well as a mood tracker and some other helpful features. Once again, it’s going to come down to what works best for you personally.
How can my employer help?
Having a chat with the business owner or your manager could be an important next step in looking after your sleep and health. The following conversations might be worth having and could go a long way in relation to improving your quality of life and performance on the pillow.
- Ask your manager to avoid rostering you on for opening shifts after you’ve done a close. “Cl-open” shifts are a recipe for fatigue and aren’t really going to help anyone. Tired employees are more likely to make mistakes or be irritable on the job.
- Ask for more consistency in your roster. Sticking to the same schedule each week will allow your body to adapt to the routine and will improve your chances of keeping your circadian rhythm in check.
- Ask for set RDOs. RDOs or rostered days off are regular days that you have off from work each week – a bit like a “hospo weekend”. Again, by making these consistent, you’ll be better enabled to calibrate your mind and body to a consistent work routine.
I’m still having problems with my sleep. What should I do?
Contact your GP. They should be able to point you in the right direction and get you in touch with a sleep specialist.
The information and strategies above are a great place to start. However, if there is something wrong medically, such as obstructive sleep apnea or narcolepsy, then further treatment from a health professional may be required.