Health is important as you go about your cabin crew duties because the job is physically demanding and you’ll always want more energy to enjoy the destinations you get to visit. Making sure you look after your sleep need is an equally important part of looking after your health, especially when it comes to looking after your immunity. Sleep is the latest performance enhancer we’ve been neglecting for so long, with a better understanding of how to consistently meet your sleep needs you can perform better and enjoy a better quality of life. In this article, We’re going to look at the importance of good sleep, the challenges of getting good sleep and how to overcome them as crew. I will also offer you some tips I used to manage my sleep schedule during my 20 year flying career.
The Cabin Crew Sleep Challenge
For occupational and environmental health purposes cabin crew are classified as shift workers. As a group of people we share some of the same challenges as doctors nurses and other round the clock professions when it comes to rest and fatigue. Besides the broad challenge of sleep deprivation the challenge crew face tends to be related to matters of sleep quality and sleep quantity. This is a quick explanation of the difference between those two terms. Sleep quality refers to the types of different sleep available within a night’s rest. Sleep quantity is pretty much what it says on the tin, the amount of sleep one is able to get in hours and minutes.
Sleep quality refers to Deep sleep,REM sleep and Light sleep. Deep sleep is the sleep we have when we wake up the most refreshed and restful. It happens during the earlier parts of the night, and is responsible for cleaning and repairing our entire body from our day’s work. REM sleep on the other hand, happens in the later part of the night and early morning. REM sleep is when the body’s filing system comes into play. We use REM sleep to sort out the events of the day and put them in order. Dreams happen in REM sleep and are a tool we use to make sense of the days events. Light sleep is as the name suggests, it is easier to be woken up in Light sleep and REM sleep than it is in Deep sleep.
Sleep quantity, the total amount of hours slept are deemed to be in a healthy range when the hours are between 6 and 9 hours per night. While there is debate about optimal amounts of sleep for individuals there is no doubt that we all have a lot of sleep debt which impacts health and performance.
For crew, early morning starts, late nights and being up at inappropriate times can lead to not getting enough of all the types of sleep to maintain good health. Recent research from the scientific community has uncovered more about the different types of sleep and their value. As crew it makes sense for us to prioritise Deep sleep over and above any other type. This is because it is the most physically restorative, and as noted the job of cabin crew is physically demanding.
Deep sleep naturally occurs between the hours of 10 pm and 2 am in the morning, wherever possible making sure that we are in bed for this time frame will help us get the best quality deep sleep available. In fact the scientific literature goes on to say that if all types of sleep are withheld the body naturally prioritises Deep sleep first and then REM sleep.
Work patterns guarantee you cannot be in bed between the hours of 10 pm and 2 am the same time every night (especially if you are on long haul) so the question we should ask ourselves is how can we make up any shortfall so we continue to enjoy the benefits of sleep and energy?
The first thing I would recommend is making sure you sort out your basic sleep hygiene. This relates to the specifics of the environment in which you are sleeping whether that be at home or in a hotel room while away on duty. Make sure it is silent and dark with no light interrupting your line of vision as you sleep. Make sure you are comfortable, specifically this means making sure the temperature is just right, not too hot or cold.
The next thing to consider is giving your body subtle cues before time that say bedtime is approaching. You can do this by making sure you pack your own sleep accessories. This could include sleep masks, earplugs, essential oils,and not forgetting good bedtime habits. If you get into the habit of doing this every bedtime your body begins to recognise the pattern irrespective of the location you may be in and gets ready for sleep. In order to make this work it means cutting out bad habits like heavy meals late at night and minimising your exposure to blue light which interferes with your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Consider Using a Sleep Tracker
Lately good quality sleep trackers have been known to help people with sleep challenges get an understanding of what to focus on to get a good nights sleep. Wearables are useful if you don’t mind using technology in bed. I use a sleep tracker even though I no longer fly and it is very good at showing me how much quality Deep sleep and REM sleep I get. This allows me to adjust and make up any lost sleep I have if I purposely decide to work late or get up early for the demands of my day. The beauty of a good quality sleep tracker is that the numbers don’t lie and you are able to closely monitor your sleep and try different things to improve your sleep quality.
I recommend all cabin crew consider prioritising sleep for their lifestyle. It makes perfect sense as you will constantly be on-the-go and your sleep will follow the work patterns of your roster and the unpredictability of a flying lifestyle. It makes sense to ensure a short-term sleep challenge doesn’t become a long term chronic condition. This is important because chronic sleep challenges wear down the immune system to an extent that they can lead to something more serious over time.
Another tool I used throughout my flying career was something I call Sleep Blocking. It’s very simple and this is how it works, from my flying roster I would look at the times I land and the times I take off and build my sleep rules around my roster. For instance if I landed before 12 pm I would always have a nap of 30 or 90 minutes or even 3 hours depending on how tired I was. If I landed after 12 pm it meant I would stay awake throughout the day, and go to bed early that night. This would have the effect of getting me back on my local home time the next morning without fail.
Finally it’s important to know what works for you and your lifestyle, that way you get the best of both worlds, your social life as well as your work life. Experiment with what makes for a good night sleep at home and let that be your guide!
Christopher Babayode is a former flight attendant of 20 years with British Airways, a specialist in Travel Wellness and healthy jet lag solutions for those who travel often. He is the author of Farewell Jet Lag, Cures from a Flight Attendant (on Amazon UK & US). Chris has been featured in the Sunday Telegraph and is a most -read author on Quora the questions and answers platform.
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