I just finished a 2 week stink on the night shift. Start time of 7 pm and finish up anywhere from 3 am to 7 am. As a morning person, to be getting home from work around the time you usually wake up gets old pretty fast. I would usually go home, take my shower, and go to bed for 6 hours before trying to get stuff done in the afternoons (my least productive time) and going back in to work after dark. I’m not going to lie, working the night shift got pretty old by the end of my two weeks.
To celebrate the end of my working nights, I thought I would post some tips on how to survive the night shift. There are two main schools of thought for working nights. Staying up after getting off, or going to bed. Personally, I’m in the latter camp, but it depends largely on your body’s rhythms.
Staying up after working the night shift
This is the most common recommendation for working nights. If you work a dedicated night shift, like my wife used to stocking shelves, then this is probably the better route, as it lets your body adjust more fully. If you are working a swing shift, or just random night shifts, then the acclimation process just isn’t going to happen. So, if you are one of those unfortunates, then you just have to listen to your body to find out what is right for you.
The “staying up” school of thought seeks to make working the night shift as similar as possible to working a day shift.
If you work during the day, chances are that you wake up an hour or two before you have to leave for work, eat some sort of breakfast and check your email, messages, etc before leaving for your job. You work your shift, and come home. At that point, maybe you have a beer or glass of wine to unwind while watching television and eat dinner. After being home and up for probably between 4 and 6 hours, you go to bed.
So if you work nights, you do the same. If your shift starts at 10 pm, you would wake up around 8 and have a bowl of cereal while finding out what happened in the world while you slept. When you get home, even though it’s 6 am, have that beer while making your dinner and watch last night’s shows on your DVR. Got to bed around noon. To start the process over again.
The trick is to fool your body into a sense of normally and to reset to circadian rhythms for the night.
Going to bed after working the night shift
Personally, when I get home from at 6 in the morning, the last thing on my mind is staying up another 6 hours. I can barely get through taking a shower to wash the road dirt off before passing out in bed. So instead, I go to bed immediately and wake up in the early afternoon. I then have the afternoon and evening to do things around the house (I don’t drink except for special occasions) before going in to work. In short, instead of swapping day for night, like the other camp, I swap work for sleep.
The key is to have a system for coping. Don’t go to bed immediately one night shift and stay up the next. Consistency for how you treat your night shift is going to be your number one key to surviving it. Keep that sleep schedule trough the weekends. My wife still remembers how tired she would be on her days off when she tried to stay up during the day so she could socialize. She would just drag through the entire weekend.
Other tips for surviving the night shift
Besides a sleep schedule and consistency there are other things that can help you survive and keep your sanity through the graveyard shift.
Probably the best purchase I ever made was a set of blackout curtains. These are heavy black curtains with a white side to face out and reflect light away. I won’t go so far as to say that it makes the room dark as night, but on a cloudy day, I once saw my wife’s little photo-sensor nightlight come on.
If you have any choice in the matter, make your bedroom a room that faces north so that it will get less direct sunlight. After north, your best bet is east facing if you are going to go with sleep schedule one (staying up) or west if you pick schedule two. This way, when you are in bed, the sun will be on the other side of the house.
Of course, the reason you are trying to get your sleeping room as dark as possible is because your brain is hardwired to associate daylight with being awake and darkness with sleep.
Food and drink
I have a co-worker who takes sleep aids at night to go to sleep, and then in the morning drinks coffee and energy drinks to wake himself up. Mixing sedatives and stimulants like that is actually very dangerous and I would not recommend it to anyone. Aside from the issues of chemical addiction and needing one to counteract the other, it puts a serious strain on your heart. In other words, DON’T DO IT!
That said, there are other things you can be doing in the food and drink category to be more awake at night while getting better sleep during the day. Eating a balanced diet is essential. Give the body the fuel it needs in forms it knows what to do with and it will supply you with energy when you need it and let you wind down later.
You are going to want to eat a fair amount of protein and B vitamins. B vitamins are generally associated with energy, especially B-12. The best sources of B vitamins are going to be leafy greens and animal proteins. Beef, eggs, and dairy in a meal will give your body the building blocks it needs to deliver energy.
Avoid carbohydrates and fatty foods before work and while at work, as your body will use its energy to digest these, making you feel sleepy (food coma, anyone?). Don’t eat immediately before going to bed, because your body can’t get its most restful sleep when it’s trying to digest the contents of your stomach.
Caffeine is a staple of night shift workers. Day-walkers consume an awful lot of it as well. I treat it the same way at night as I do during the day. One when I start my shift and that is it. Then I switch to water. Drinking water is actually beneficial; proper hydration will help keep the caffeine circulating through your system.
Preparing for an upcoming night shift
When I learn that I will be working nights the following week, I start pushing my body’s rhythms back. I generally go to bed sometime between 9 and 11. The next couple nights, I will go to bed closer to midnight or even 1 am. For me, that’s pretty late at night. Without an alarm, I generally wake up about 7 am. On the mornings I’m adjusting my sleep schedule, I try to sleep in a little later.
More helpful information can also be obtained through health policy programs.
Have you ever worked the night shift? How well did you handle it?