Keep your eyes open

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Everyone knows fatigue degrades alertness and performance—reaction times slow, attention spans shorten, and judgment deteriorates. Everyone one knows the primary sources of fatigue—less than seven hours of sleep per day and changing schedules due to shift work or deployment. However, not everyone knows we tend to underestimate our own fatigue level and its effects on individual and team performance. 


Rule #1:
Fatigue affects performance like alcohol. Go without sleep for 18 hours, and your performance will mirror someone with a 0.05 blood alcohol content. Stay awake for 24 hours, and you can expect to perform at a level similar to a 0.10 BAC. 

Rule #2:
You can go from “wide awake” to “fast asleep” in 10 seconds or less—often without realizing you fell asleep. Sleep will win eventually, often at the worst possible moment. 

Rule #3:
The only cure for fatigue is sleep. This brings us to the crux of the issue—there’s no substitute for a good night’s (or day’s) rest. 


More than 22 million Americans, including many Schriever employees, are shift workers and face the challenges of rotating schedules to support 24-hour operations. Unfortunately, most shift workers get less sleep than the recommended daily allowance of eight hours each day. These heroes are fighting the natural sleep-wake cycle—often trying to stay alert at night and sleep during the day. 

The drive for sleep is strongest between midnight and 6 a.m. It is difficult to reset one’s internal circadian clock, so shift workers must use appropriate strategies to successfully fall asleep and stay asleep. 


The overall strategy is to make sleep a priority. Schedules and responsibilities may play havoc with your priorities, but constantly work toward the ideal of seven to eight hours of sleep each day. 

1. Set the stage for sleep even though the sun may be shining brightly outside. Wear wrap-around sunglasses during your drive home after a night shift. Besides scoring major “style points,” this approach helps prevent the morning sunlight from activating your internal daytime clock. In addition, darken your sleep environment—go to sleep as soon as possible after work. 

2. Follow bedtime rituals to prepare your mind and body for sleep. Try to keep the same sleep schedule, even on non-duty days. 

3. Enlist friends and family in your adventure. Ask them to help create a quiet, comfortable environment. Ask them to wear headsets while listening to music or watching television, and ban loud household chores and activities during your sleep time. Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door to discourage interruptions. 

4. If you can’t get enough sleep or feel drowsy, consider catching a “combat nap.” A 20- to 30-minute nap improves alertness and performance. Allow enough time after this nap for your brain to fully re-engage; most people feel groggy for up to 15 minutes after a nap. 


Just as you can adopt strategies to optimize your sleep, you can use strategies to stay alert while on duty. Tailor the following suggestions to your environment: 

1. Break up your shift with short breaks when possible. Stretch or exercise during your breaks. Researchers have spent millions of our tax dollars to confirm that it is difficult to fall asleep while walking around. 

2. Engage your brain. Start thoughtful discussions with your co-workers. 

3. Optimize your diet. A general rule-of-thumb: carbohydrate-rich foods induce drowsiness, whereas protein-rich foods enhance alertness. Snack on beef jerky, protein bars, and nuts. Stay off the sugar roller coaster—avoid high-sugar snacks like the classic soda-and-candy meal. 

4. Use caffeine wisely. This central nervous stimulant takes 15 to 30 minutes to work its magic, so plan your consumption. Target times you know cause problems, but before 3 a.m. Chronic use of caffeine or tobacco reduces the effectiveness of caffeine—consider weaning yourself to achieve the maximum benefit. 


Fatigue will remain a very real challenge for shift workers. Everyone knows there’s no single solution to this problem. Now you also know some personal strategies to “keep your eyes open”—adapt them to your world for optimum performance. You have to know the mission can’t happen without you. 

If you have questions or want more information about sleep strategies for shift workers, contact your friendly professionals at Peterson Air Force Base Aerospace Physiology, 556-7650, or Aerospace Medicine, 556-1260. Operators are standing by.