The night shift, or shift work, is not only more common than many might think, but it is on the rise. If we include evening shifts, one-fifth of employed Americans work either the “graveyard shift,” primarily evening work hours or a rotating shift schedule. Moreover, one-third of all dual-income couples who have children involve at least one spouse or partner working one version of these schedules.
Shift workers experience an array of distinct issues not encountered by employees who work daytime hours. For example, chronic exhaustion. Nightshift workers reported excessive sleepiness or insomnia at a rate of 25 to 30 percent.
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Shift Work Can Affect All Areas of a Person’s Life
Shift work can affect a wide variety of areas an employee’s life including circadian rhythms, emotional health, increased health and injury risks, and sleep disturbances. It can add stress on relationships not only within a couple but regarding social life as well. When friends and family work day jobs, it can become isolating to cope with shift work.
Shift Work Is on the Rise
While the “graveyard shift” is by no means new, the commonness of working night hours has increased and continues to do so with our modern “24-hour Society” and global commerce. This contemporary shift of escalated shift work is in part thanks to the spreading availability of 24-hours stores, larger hospitals, more significant populations requiring nighttime public services such as police, and overnight flights carrying thousands of people. Even consumers online are more expectant of customer service, whether by phone or online chat, all hours of the day.
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Variations of Shift Work
Shift work can be a variation of schedules. While some employees work on a “permanent” night shift schedule, others work a “rotating” schedule where they oscillate between a few days with daytime hours, and other days of the week they are working night hours. Other workers, as is typical for those in restaurants and bars, often work late evening hours that go well into the night, but not all the way through until the next working morning.
Some Downfalls of Shift Work
While it’s healthy for employees to focus on the positive, several studies that show negative impacts of working night hours and sleeping through daylight. Sleep disruptions, an upset of circadian rhythms, and heightened seasonal affective disorder are not the only side effects.
Higher Risk of Cancer
Studies also show that shift work can potentially increase the risk of tumors and cancer. While it might be easy to assume it is the stress of specific jobs, such as emergency room nurses, are part of the cause of these increased risks. However, the incidences of breast cancer found in nurses and flight attendants were higher for night shift workers than those doing the same job during the day.
The results were also consistent with animal studies of chronic low lights at night or simulated continuous jet lag.
Reports show that shift workers also have a 40 percent higher risk for heart disease than daytime employees. It’s possible that this could be due to the combination of disrupted sleep patterns, circadian rhythms and their connection to autonomic cardiac control, and stresses from family conflicts and scheduling.
However, studies also suggest that other contributing factors of heart disease such as smoking and obesity were more prevalent among shift workers.
Unfortunately, shift work goes hand-in-hand with some gastrointestinal issues and digestive problems. Those who work the night shift suffer from heartburn, indigestion, appetite changes, and weight changes more often than day workers. Peptic ulcers were also found more often in those dealing with the night shift.
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Fatigue and Commuting
Commuting to and from shift work jobs can pose other potential hazards. Shift workers were found to be sleepier driving home from work than typical daytime employees. It’s an excellent idea during a commute home after the night shift for employees to keep their car cool to help stay alert, listen to upbeat music or audiobooks. Alternating the drive route a bit can also help keep your brain more alert.
Accidents and Errors at Work
Additionally, shift work is associated with a higher rate of industrial accidents, work or driving injuries, and errors at work. Furthermore, studies found a general decline in work capacity and an increased rate of reported or near-miss injuries on the job. It is highly beneficial for companies and employers to take every measure possible to aid shift workers in coping with the particular stressors and difficulties of the late-hours schedule.
Chronic Pattern of Fatigue
It could be easy to assume a shift worker would adjust to their schedule over time. However, research shows that most permanent night workers—those who consistently work the night shift and do not have to jump back and forth on a rotating schedule—never genuinely adapt the agenda. That is, there are many nights when workers still feel excessively sleepy.
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Tips for Shift Workers in Dealing with Fatigue and Sleep Schedules
There are some things both companies and employees can do to help avoid accidents and health disturbances when working night shifts. While employers should do everything they can to support employees both for productivity and to avoid liabilities, shift workers must take responsibility, as well. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to take charge of their sleep, safety, and health.
Eat to Energize
Eat energizing, healthy foods especially when working night shifts. If you begin a work “day” with foods that will make you sluggish, it will only cause the night working hours to drag and make you sleepier. A balance of lean protein, whole grains, and energizing fruits and vegetables is crucial at the beginning and during late work hours, even if you don’t eat healthy during other times.
Get Moving to Stay Alert
Get your blood flowing during breaks if your job is sedentary. Mild to moderate activity can help you feel more awake. Exercise can also alleviate symptoms of stress such as anxiety and depression. Even if you work a job that requires you to be on your feet, such as nursing, change up your muscle activity. Taking a private moment to do squats or lunges can increase your heart rate and help you feel more awake. Keep your body tricked into feeling as if night hours are daytime by moving like it’s a busy morning or afternoon.
Consider Light Therapy
Bright lighting is found to help employees stay more alert, especially during night shifts. If your work environment is not conducive to very bright light, look into portable light energy therapy devices to use it during breaks if possible.
Being exposed to bright lighting during the night can help trick your brain into a reversed schedule, especially if used with light-blocking curtains during daytime sleep hours. Light therapy is a particularly crucial tip for those on a permanent night shift schedule.
Try a Rotating Schedule If Possible
Studies show that a rotating shift work schedule can be healthier than a permanent shift work schedule. If you can work it out with your employer, try to avoid working a permanent night schedule. If you can manage a few nights shifts and switch over to day or afternoon schedules later in the week, try to do so.
The benefits of this could stem from getting more social time with friends and family during the week, in addition to being out in natural daylight for at least part of the week.
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Dark Sunglasses If You’re Too Awake Coming Home
If you have trouble falling asleep once you get home in the morning, consider wearing dark sunglasses on the commute home. Dark sunglasses may help keep your body from waking up from sunlight when you’re nearing time to wind down.
Naturally, staying alert while driving is of utmost importance. So, listen to your body for the safety of yourself and others on the road. However, if you feel wired at the end of your night shift, dark sunglasses can help mimic the lighting of late evening to further “trick” your brain.
Daytime Sleep Quality Must Be a Priority
When it’s time to sleep during the day, do everything possible to make sleep quality experience. Completely light-blocking curtains or shades on your windows and the use of earplugs are essential. Let neighbors and friends know about sleep hours to prevent being disturbed. Owning a quality mattress that is comfortable enough to fall asleep quickly is a necessary investment, also.
Try Melatonin If You Can Fall Asleep During the Day
If you avoid prescription sleep medicine, but you still can’t fall asleep, try using melatonin for sleep. Melatonin is the chemical your brain produces during the night to help you fall asleep, and may have additional health benefits, as well, such as liver protection. It’s a more natural supplement than over the counter sleep medications and can result in a less groggy side effect.
Tips for Personal Lives of Shift Workers
Companies should do everything they can to help employees maintain their health and safety by considering the risks of shift work. Likewise, employees should do their best to utilize anything they can to do the same. For example, having light-blocking curtains for daytime sleep hours, and using breaks at work to fit in mild exercise to help stay alert. When it comes to personal lives, there are additional tips to help.
Have Gratitude for the Perks of Your Job
Appreciate the advantages of your schedule. If, for example, you are on a rotating schedule and able to be home with your children during the weekdays, try to focus on the positivity of that benefit. Cherish that sort of distinct time with children.
Look for anything about your schedule that is a perk and try dwelling on it whenever you can. Be grateful for the smaller crowds at places such as grocery stores when you have abnormal times to shop. A positive attitude is proven to be linked with a healthier life.
Call Home or Video Call When Possible
If you work in a position where you’re able to call home during breaks, take advantage of a quick phone call when kids are about to go to bed, or your spouse is tucking in for the night. A FaceTime or Skype session at moments as such can help you stay more with your family connected socially. Communicate with your employer if this is important to you and see if you can schedule a five-minute break to make a quick call.
Communicate with Your Partner About Household Tasks
For spouses or partners working opposing schedules, there can be irritations such as car repairs that are more difficult for night shift workers to handle. Be open with communication regarding tasks that are more doable during the day or night. If you work the night shift and need a half hour to wind down when you first get home, you can help your spouse with quiet activities such as folding laundry or wiping down counters. Be open about things you need help with that or daytime errands.
Make a Schedule to Spend Time Together
It’s easy to focus on missing out on events such as family gatherings when you work evening and night hours, especially on weekends. If you’re in a relationship, schedule times and activities to stay connected to your partner emotionally.
It may not sound romantic, but in the real world of dealing with a work-life balance, it’s necessary. Even if you only schedule 20 minutes together, be sure to focus on each other during that time. When you make your couple-time schedule, stick to it. Additionally, consider trying the following:
- Make a book club between the two of you. Even if you’re not big on reading, you can utilize your commute to listen to an audiobook and discuss it with your spouse.
- Leave a romantic scavenger hunt around the house for your partner and surprise them with a couple of love notes and thoughtful, small gifts.
- Visit each other at work if possible once in a while. Try not to overdo the visits, as this may end up annoying your spouse or co-workers over time. However, an occasional stop in before or after your sleeping hours can be a thoughtful gesture.
- Schedule a couple’s massage if that’s your style, even if it’s only a 30-minute version if you’re short on time or money.
- Keep a little romance going to sending your partner a romantic text or picture while you’re apart. When it starts to feel like everyday life and work took over your lives, make an effort to rekindle some of that old flirtation with each other by sending loving messages.
Find common ground with your partner during quick dates to help you feel connected even if you pass each other on the way to and from work.
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Make Friends Who Work the Same Schedule
Cultivating healthy friendships with people at work can help you feel less alone. If you’re in a relationship and work an opposite schedule from your spouse or partner, tread carefully on the appropriateness of friendships at work.
Remind yourself of why your relationship is significant. However, relating with others who work the night shift can help you feel less isolated about your schedule.
Shift work can pose difficulties for both sleep and relationships. However, with a little effort, you can maintain more energy, a healthier lifestyle, and a well-connected relationship if you make them a priority. Keep a positive attitude, make your sleep a priority, and commit to remaining connected with your spouse despite the schedule differences.
Communication and empathy go a long way. Not only will you feel more understood if you use sympathy with each other, but you will be able to see how you can help your partner feel happier when you use compassion.