If you work the graveyard shift, or if your day-night schedule changes every week, take heart: you’re not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 15 million American workers work nights on a permanent or rotating basis. From nurses, ER doctors, and medical interns to tow truck drivers, janitors, and air traffic controllers, millions of Americans–and many millions more worldwide–work through the hours when most people are asleep.
Those of you who do shift work, especially if it includes night shifts, know the stresses that come with sleeping in the day and never having a regular sleep schedule. And if you’re the spouse or child of a shift worker, you know the different stresses that brings: creeping around the house while your spouse sleeps, never being able to make plans more than a few days in advance. Such a schedule can definitely take its toll. Fortunately, research suggests there’s a lot you can do to combat the effects–and what’s more, they may not be as bad as you’ve been told.
The Shift Work Blues
The overriding problem with shift-work, especially night-shift work, is that it messes with what is called your circadian rhythm: your natural sleeping-and-waking cycle that also includes broader patterns of energy and tiredness. People are pretty adaptable, and by setting a strict sleeping schedule during the day, you could adjust fully to night work over time . . . except that life keeps going on. As the American Psychological Association puts it, adapting perfectly would put you “out of phase with regular day-working people,” including your family and friends, banks and other businesses, and anyone you wanted to, say, meet for lunch.
In other words, it’s really the variation in schedules that causes the biggest issues. Well–that and not having control. One study in the American Behavioral Scientist found that it was lack of autonomy over one’s own schedule (not being able to set your own hours, in other words) that caused the most stress among shift workers. Similarly, a study of nurses found that the more experienced the nurse, the less shift-related stress they experienced, suggesting that workers with more authority (and, as a result, more autonomy and choice and probably more say in their own schedules) suffer fewer ill effects from shift work.
Finally, there is some evidence that there are personality types more suited to night work. In particular, if you find you’re able to sleep easily wherever you are, or if you don’t need a lot of sleep in the first place, you may be better fitted for night work or shifting schedules.
Interestingly, these differences in autonomy, experience, and personality can override what have long been considered inevitable responses to shift work, including weight gain, loss of sleep, inattention, and safety issues. It turns out that choosing when you work, having some autonomy over your own schedule while at work (which allows you to better fit your activities to your shifting energy levels), and being suited to the work personally can make a big difference.
Self-Care for Shift Work Stress
The good news is, there are a lot of ways to reduce the stressful effects of shift work in your life. Regular exercise and healthy eating habits have been shown to reduce sleepiness and increase energy in night-shift workers. In particular, moving around whenever you can while you’re at work and not eating big, heavy meals at night can keep you from hitting the sleep wall in the wee hours of the morning.
Caffeine, too, can be useful but also has the potential to increase your stress in the long term. Although it may make you more energetic in the moment, it’s draining over the course of days and weeks. If you do drink coffee or soda, making sure you don’t drink any within four to five hours before you plan to go to sleep can reduce sleeplessness and increase the quality of your sleep in the long run.
And quality of sleep, it turns out, is really important–every bit as important as quantity. Not getting fully into the deep-sleep cycle can lead to jitters and anxiety, agitation, fatigue, and irritability, as well as difficulty concentrating.
Help yourself achieve this kind of deep sleep, even during the day, by setting up bedtime routines, including turning off lights and lighted devices (such as the TV or iPad) at least half an hour before getting in bed, having a sleep-transition activity such as meditation or reading to help you relax, and using heavy curtains to keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Enlist your family’s help in keeping the bedroom as quiet as possible, and try sleeping immediately when you get home from a night shift, then taking a nap before going back.
If you can, also try to take more control over your own schedule. Ask your supervisor to give you some more say in your shifts. Or, if that’s not possible, at least take control of your schedule at home, finding one or more activities you can do at the same time every day–a midday meal, a workout, a family activity–to give you some stability and routine.
A lot of shift workers, dispatchers included, are people who are doing very important, even life-saving work and have a strong dedication to doing it well. Whether it’s keeping planes from hitting each other over a runway, managing an Intensive Care Unit, or taking 911 calls, night shift workers are busy protecting us, keeping services available, and preparing the world for another day, all while we sleep. If you’re one of the millions who do this work, remember that your first obligation is to yourself. The more you can reduce your stress and exhaustion, the better you’ll be at what you do, both at work and at home.