Night shift work

It’s bad enough when you have to work during the day, doing it at night makes it that much harder. Trying to stay awake and making sure that you’re doing your best is a struggle when its 2am and all you can think about is your warm, fuzzy blanket. The Mix is here to keep you company on the night shift, read our tips for working nights.

Two young women are talking. They are discussing night shifts. This is a wide-angle image.

UK employment laws: night shifts

The official UK employment laws on night shifts state that night shift work means:

  • You’re working more than three hours between the hours of 11pm and 6am (although hours can be subject to change if you and your employer agree)
  • For health and safety reasons, you cannot work more than eight hours of night work in a reference period of 24 hours
  • You must have at least two days off a fortnight – that usually means a maximum of 48 hours work a week
  • You’re entitled to at least a 20-minute rest break during a six-hour shift

You can’t opt out of UK employment law. You gotta follow the rules to the book, and don’t be afraid to remind your boss about them either. Although it’s important to note that if you’re 16-17, you’re not allowed to work between midnight and 4am. To find out more about night shift laws, you can click here.

How many hours between shifts: UK night work

Since you’re not allowed to work more than eight hours of night work in a 24 hour period, you should always get a minimum of 11 hours rest between shifts. And make sure that you’re also getting plenty of rest breaks during your shift.

Is night shift work bad for me?

We’re not gonna sugarcoat it. Yes, it is. No matter how long you work nights for, your body clock will never adapt to being awake when it’s dark; we need the sun to survive the day. So, unfortunately, you’ll always be resisting the urge to sleep.

Occasional night shift work shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’re doing it over a long period of time it might become risky. There’s a greater risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Not to mention that the disruption to your sleep patterns can put you at a higher risk of being in a car accident.

‘Shift work disorder’ is one of the sleep disorders associated with night shifts. People who suffer from SWD have insomnia when they attempt to sleep and/or excessive sleepiness while they’re working.

The good news is that you’re entitled to a health assessment before you start night time work, and regular health questionnaires as you go on. If your health is affected, your boss should try – if possible – to move you onto the day shift, possibly after running a risk assessment.

Sleep problems and working nights

Night shifts mess with your sleep schedule which means you may find it hard to get the rest you need. Following these tips for working nights should help.

  • Establish a sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
  • Don’t eat too much before going to bed – especially spicy or fatty foods
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine a couple of hours before bedtime
  • Put up blackout curtains and use earplugs to help you fall asleep during the day
  • Use your bedroom for sleeping and sex only – no computer, no TV, and no work
  • Avoid strenuous exercise just before you try to sleep
  • Wind down after your shift before you attempt to sleep. Either read a book, go for a short walk, listen to music, or take a warm bath
  • Don’t use sleeping pills for more than two weeks as they’re addictive. Talk to your GP if you think you might be suffering from addiction

Staying awake on a night shift

Twilight is the hardest time to stay awake, so at around two or three am make sure you have enough stimulating work to do and follow our tips for working nights. Things you should do to stay awake include:

  • Don’t get too comfortable or too warm
  • Go for a short walk in the fresh air – rather than relying on stimulants – to keep yourself awake
  • Keep bright lights on you at all times
  • Exercise before your shift to give you more energy and keep you alert

Make sure it isn’t too quiet. Maybe try putting the radio on or some music, or chat to colleagues.

For more tips and information on working life, head here.

Next Steps

  • Acas offers free advice about everything to do with employment law. 0300 123 1100
  • You can visit NHS Choices for more information. You can get quick advice when it's not an emergency on 111.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Holly Bourne

Updated on 23-Jan-2022