How to survive night shift job

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I started doing nights shift in 2003 with an International Call Center in Ghana called Supra Telecom.This was the largest call centre in Accra consisting of a network of 948 terminated computer points for voice and data for Supra Telecom based in the USA.

There was nothing open back then.

Sunday to Saturday with one day off, all of society went to bed at midnight. Even the television shut down. In those days you worked shifts on a cycle. In the space of five days, your whole system and body clock was completely the wrong way round. I've had doctors say you shouldn't eat at night, but the company provided us free food even in the middle of the night shift.

What do firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, factory workers, and office cleaning staff have in common? They all are at risk for shift work sleep disorder. If you work at night or often rotate shifts, you may share that risk. Working at night or irregular shifts can keep you from getting the regular snooze time that most daytime workers take for granted.

You don’t need a science degree to figure out that people need sleep. But countless research points to the same conclusion: insufficient sleep can cause a wide range of physical and mental health problems, from poor judgment to depression to heart disease. And ideally, humans should get the sleep they need at night and stay active during the day.

It is physically demanding to try to stay awake all night. You are tired during the day and tired during the night. As I got older, I found it even more difficult to stay awake. By the time you get to the Monday, you're a zombie. You forget appointments; you have to write everything down. The quieter nights were harder.

Unfortunately, you don't get a chance to sleep during the day. The rest of society doesn't expect you to sleep. Everyone's out in the garden, cutting grass; you've got the curtains pulled and the earplugs in.

On the flip side, I loved night duty. The office was ours; no hustle and bustle in the workplace. You could get things done. The challenge was having an impact on health. The biggest problem was digestive – which may lead to loads of stomach upsets.

Now, psychologists are gaining a better understanding of how exactly night and shift work affect cognitive performance and which interventions and policies could keep shift workers and the public safer.

"The basic take-home is that fatigue decreases safety," says Bryan Vila, PhD, a sleep expert and criminal justice researcher at Washington State University–Spokane. Learning healthy sleeping practices is "just as important as occupational training," he says.

Poor scheduling, combined with unhealthy attitudes about the need for sleep, can cause major problems for night workers. That’s because working at night runs counter to the body’s natural circadian rhythm, says Charmane Eastman, PhD, a physiological psychologist at Rush University in Chicago. The circadian clock is essentially a timer that lets various glands know when to release hormones and also controls mood, alertness, body temperature and other aspects of the body’s daily cycle.

Our bodies and brains evolved to relax and cool down after dark and to spring back into action come morning. People who work the night shift must combat their bodies’ natural rest period while trying to remain alert and high functioning. It doesn’t matter whether they get enough sleep during the daytime, she says. All the sleep in the world won’t make up for circadian misalignment.

Jenny Treanorpoints out the following to help survive night shift job:

Develop a long-term timeline

You can maintain this lifestyle — for now. Powering through may be your best and only option. But if you know you can’t live this way forever, pick a point in the future when you’re sure the lifestyle will stop.

Let your boss know that you’ll need to switch to day shifts within six months or one year, and if this doesn’t happen, have a plan in mind to look for work elsewhere. By the time you reach this deadline, you may have adjusted.

Find someone to talk to

You may not need a licensed therapist, but find someone in your circle of family and friends who knows what it’s like to work at night. Lean on this person when you need to share what you’re going through. The experience can be surreal and isolating, and your coworkers may be reluctant to talk about it, since (like you, probably) they don’t want to advertise their struggles.

Respect your daytime sleep and insist that others respect it too

If your children, spouse or roommates can’t leave you in peace during the day, talk with them seriously about what you’re going through and be clear about what you need from them (e.g., a quieter space, less light, a room on the non-street side of the house, fewer interruptions).

Develop rituals that mark the distinction between “night” and “day”

When you wake up, follow a set of behaviours that train your brain to accept this hour as “morning.” Brewing coffee and making a daily ritual of breakfast can help. A few morning exercises can also help. Keep the pattern similar each day.

Recognize what’s happening to you

Mental and physiological changes often have more damaging effects when they’re not expected or understood. A sudden burst of tears, unexplained anger or clumsiness may not feel directly connected to your sleep habits and you may not technically feel tired when you experience them. But recognize these as the signs and symptoms of disrupted sleep, and know that when your body adjusts to its new schedule, these will probably subside.

According to Deanne Chiu drink water and eat food (bring real food, not just junk, and a big water bottle that you can reach for when you are writing notes). Drinking enough water is absolute number one piece of advice. It’s hard to be high functioning when you are symptomatically dehydrated.

Just like with day shift, caffeinating during the second half of your shift reduces your chance of sleeping when you get home. Plan your caffeine. Eg.bring a big plunger and invest in decent Peruvian coffee to have on arrival during handover, and at the halfway mark of the shift.

If you suddenly realize you are too tired to drive home, DON’T. Get a taxi or phone a friend. We don’t need any more post-nightshift road trauma (ask your seniors and they will all know of past incidents, one more is one too many).

Your body reacts to sunlight. Wear dark glasses home, and invest in cut-out curtains; or an eye mask. Avoid artificial light – constantly checking your phone or iPad because you can’t sleep will make it worse.

Most of us use noise (alarms) to wake up. So, if you need to sleep, invest in earplugs.

Don’t use alcohol to help you sleep. It is a sleep inducer but it will disrupt your REM sleep which impacts on how rested and functional you are on waking.

Don’t commit to things during the day because daytime people expect you to – you are living their life in reverse. Eg: Delivery service*: “So, you’re on nights, you’ll be home during the day, we can deliver at 3pm.”

Me: “So, when you’re on dayshifts, do you plan to wake up at 3 am to let random people into your house?”  “Rellies inviting you to lunch, a course from 9 am - 5 pm, friends wanting a shopping date” etc]

DO make sure you make the time and headspace for Post-Nights Breakfast. Critical Care rosters lend themselves to this and I’d argue that in any teams that do a round of nights together, this is an incredibly useful space to wind down; congratulate one another and reflect on ways to improve. I make a point of having a debrief, called “The Ceremonial Airing of Grievances”. Homer (Simpson) has a lot to teach us. Venting prevents explosion. Use the formal positive critique/Pendleton’s model/the “hashtag rant” – just make sure everyone on the team can identify any painful experiences, reflect on how awesome they are; and work out how to be more awesome next time.

To recap above points the best way to adapt to shift work is to stick to the same schedule, even on weekends. If this isn't possible, you're more likely to feel fatigued when working the night shift. But there are strategies that can help you stay alert. Try to work with others rather than alone. Drink a beverage with caffeine at the start of your shift. Walk around or get some exercise on your break. If napping is an option, give it a try.

If you've had work-related sleep problems for at least a month -- and they've affected your family or work life -- a sleep specialist may help. An evaluation can find underlying causes including medical conditions, emotional problems, substance abuse, medications, or poor sleep habits. If a shift work sleep disorder exists, a doctor can determine whether prescription drugs are safe and appropriate, given your personal health history and the risks of side effects.

Although most people find it tough to sleep during the day, there are some tricks that can help. On your way home from work, wear dark glasses and stay out of the sun. Make your bedroom as dark as possible or wear an eye mask. Use earplugs to block out the daytime noise. And create a bedtime ritual, like reading or a taking a bath, to signal to your brain that it's time to sleep, the power is yours.