How to Survive the Graveyard Shift (and Make Lots of Money)
With the recent reports on air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job and potentially endangering passengers, I thought I'd share my experience from my early days working night shift. Fresh out of college, I landed a role as a manufacturing supervisor. I jumped at the opportunity because the it was my best offer, it was a good company, and in addition to a decent starting salary, I would be getting night-shift pay. After a few months on the job, we switched to a crazy rotating schedule of five days on, five days off, working 12-hour shifts. My shift was 6 p.m. – 6 a.m. Those hours really started to mess with my internal clock, so I devised a few ways to stay sharp at work while maintaining some semblance of a normal personal life. (See also: How to Naturally Reset Your Sleep Cycle in One Night)
There are some pros and cons to working night shift, and it certainly isn't for everyone. But if it's what your situation calls for, here are some tips.
Assess Your Personal Situation
The biggest mistake I used to see people make is working night shift when they couldn't and wouldn't balance their work and home-life needs. I was fresh out of college with no wife, no kids, and not much of a social life, since I had to move to another state. I was laser-focused on work and saw my fiance on weekends only. So during the week, my life pretty much centered around working, sleeping, reading, and exercising. I used to see people struggling quite a bit at work, either falling asleep or making a lot of mistakes on the job. Extreme drowsiness can be just as bad as being under the influence, but employers don't and can't screen employees for alertness.
The problem with some of these people was that night shift clearly wasn't for them. There were moms and dads trying to do too much, people trying to run another business on the side, social butterflies who refused to miss a happy hour, and people that were constantly sick because they weren't taking care of themselves. We had one guy who was in trouble somewhat routinely for sleeping and making mistakes, and I came to find that not only did he work the night shift and take on overtime shifts whenever he had the chance, but he was also working part-time as a roofer during day! What did this guy expect? He simply wasn't sleeping.
Other people, parents especially, just couldn't find the time to sleep because they were coaching teams, helping out their spouses, or whatever. This isn't to say people with kids shouldn't work nights. But before even considering that type of arrangement, you have to do a realistic assessment of how you're going to manage childcare, being an involved parent, and sleeping. We have a friend now in a rotational nursing role that requires working at night on weekends, and the husband basically takes the kids all weekend while mom works and sleeps. It works for them, and mom can function.
While the money might be nicer, if it's going to ruin your life, it's just not worth it.
Sleep Consistently, Even on Off Days
I found this to be helpful, especially when I was working a routine five days on, two days off. By simply switching to sleeping at night on a Saturday night, by the time I had to go back to work at midnight on a Sunday, I wouldn't be able to sleep before work, so it was like sleeping six nights a week instead of seven. Your body gets used to certain cycles where everything from brain function to metabolic function to muscle repair is on a clock and used to a one-day cycle. When you constantly alter that pattern, your body starts to get out of whack. I used to do it occasionally out of necessity, and I'd feel it for days. My body literally ached when I woke up from a slumber, and my cognitive function was impaired. Find a time slot that works, and stick to it!
Get Help With Sleep the Right Way
I used to live next door to a guy who was home during the day too. But instead of sleeping, he tended to mow his lawn incessantly, and he had a barking dog. I'm a very light sleeper, so this presented some serious problems for me. While I gave him a hard time about the dog now and then, it's tough to argue with someone about mowing their lawn during the day. I devised a few ways to ensure I could fall asleep and stay asleep. Various things I tried that did help included the following:
- Wearing earplugs to bed
- Ensuring my room was completely dark
- Having background noise like a portable fan
- Falling asleep to classical music
- Keeping a notepad near the bad to jot down urgent thoughts to keep my mind from running
- Setting the temperature lower
- Exercising and showering AFTER sleeping, not before
- And most importantly — turning off that phone! Telemarketers and friends used to call constantly while I was sleeping.
These days, another lifesaver is the new generation of noise-canceling headsets out there like the Quiet Comfort series by Bose. I use them to mow my lawn and when I do sleepovers with the kids' Adventure Guides outings, which are prone to snoring dads.
In retrospect, I probably made an extra $10,000 or more per year because of my night shift/weekend swing shifts. I enjoyed the benefits of being able to run errands during the day and avoid rush-hour traffic patterns. I was able to jog during the day when the weather was beautiful, and I was able to stand out at work since so many people were operating like zombies, and I was fresh most days. There are certain benefits to the night shift that many people never contemplate. But my biggest advice is to visualize your day, and only accept a job that requires night shift if you have your personal life squared away first.
Do you have night shift tips and tricks to share?
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