Working the night shift is no easy feat. Here are some tips to not only survive but thrive while working off hours.
Many people moan about the nine-to-five grind but consider the challenges that come with the working night shift: non-traditional late-night hours.
From the medical field to restaurant staff and manufacturing workers, a number of professions have overnight shifts. While finding a work-life balance may already be complicated for those with a daily work schedule, people who find themselves leaving for a shift just as their loved ones are heading to bed have a few more challenges with which to contend.
At last count, nearly 15 million Americans were working full-time night shifts. Considering this data was released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2004, that number has only climbed in the years since.
Those millions of people face greater health and safety risks in the workplace, not to mention potential isolation in their homes and friendship groups.
Working at night isn’t limited to the night shift, either. Many more employees are expected to check their emails late into the evening, replying to queries and prepping themselves for the next day. For people that work with teams in other time zones, a work day has the potential to spread itself over every waking hour—not to mention the notification pings that come in as you sleep.
With virtual offices on our laptops and coworkers around the globe, workers in the U.S. of all stripes are logging many hours beyond the typical full-time work week.
The lines between work and home are blurred more than ever. That’s why it’s crucial for people to take proactive measures to achieve a balance between the two.
The Friend and Family Conundrum
The most common problem for employees on the night shift is finding the time to spend with family and friends.
Schedule dates during the shoulder periods to avoid having to cancel on friends because of sleepiness: the time immediately after or right before your shift begins. If you’re working a midnight to 8 am shift, shoulder period meetups could be a late night meal or a morning breakfast date.
It’s essential to get a good “night’s” sleep still when you’re working an overnight shift, and scheduling something mid-day will disrupt that.
Make sure your close friends and family have a sense of your schedule and plan well in advance to line up your down times. It can also help to build a network of people who are in a similar situation to you. Colleagues and other night shift workers can provide a social relief during the middle of a shift and will also be able to give you work-life balance tips of their own.
Health and Wellness
The night shift can also wreak havoc with a person’s diet. A recent study found that people working overnight shifts burn less energy than those working regular 9-to-5 hours, thereby increasing their risk of weight gain.
Researchers said this was because night shifts go against basic human biology, which dictates that people should be eating and working when the sun is out and sleeping after dark.
Another contributing factor is that there’s simply less opportunity to make healthy choices when working overnight. Whereas a 9-to-5 employee may opt to head to the salad bar on the street outside their office building or take a Pilates class over lunch, there isn’t that same opportunity when your break is at 4 am.
Shift workers are often left finding food at 24-hour fast food locations or heading to 24-hour grocery stores where snack aisles beckon.Many of the tactics to staying healthy during the night shift are the same as those for daily workers: buy healthy, prepare food in advance, and stick to a fixed schedule.
Making a few nutritious dishes at the start of the week means you won’t be scrambling for food at night before your shift begins. Just as there are set meal periods during daylight hours, try to do the same for an overnight shift.
For example, perhaps you want to eat breakfast at 11:30 pm, before your shift starts, and then limit yourself to eating again before 3 am or 4 am It’s important to create habits within your schedule and consistently follow those so your body has a better idea of what to expect.
Don’t rely on caffeine to keep you awake. Instead, try your best to maintain a consistent sleep schedule when you’re on the night shift. For those with families, sleeping during their nine-to-five work or school hours will be the best time to get some shut-eye.
If late-night shifts are a regular in your life, you should consider getting a set of blackout blinds and ear plugs so your body can relax into the silence and darkness of “night.”
The Importance of Boundaries
There are also some tips for those plagued with the inability to put down their laptop and smartphone once they get home. If you’re always working after hours, try limiting that work to a set block of time.
Rather than opening your laptop as soon as you get home at 5:30 pm, aim to focus on other things and other people until, say, 8 pm when you decide to get back to work. This doesn’t mean sitting at the kitchen table and ranting about your boss to your family. Make a conscious and concerted effort to shut work out of your brain altogether.
Then, pull inspiration from childhood and set a working bedtime. With today’s endless to-do lists, it would be easy to work into the wee hours of the night. Setting a deadline will force you to get out of the work groove for the evening.
You don’t have to go to bed at that time, of course, but it can be a valuable period to catch up with your loved one or read a book before heading to sleep. If you have anxiety over missing an email, let your colleagues know about the evening schedule you’ve set. Perhaps they’ll find some inspiration from the structure, too.
There are many free training resources available for people working the night shift. In 2015, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released an online course specifically aimed at educating overnight shift nurses and their managers about the risk that can come from that role.
There are also online discussion groups where users can take part in a nightly discussion thread that serves as both a place to rant and an anonymous support group with hundreds of other shift workers.
Cortney Berling is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Tri-City Medical Center, a full-service, acute-care hospital located in Oceanside, California. She received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics at The University of Cincinnati and completed her dietetic internship at The Cleveland Clinic.