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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Guest's picture

Third shift horror story for ya

For my first few days on third shift, I got a few hours of sleep each day, but I was surprised to find that I didn't really feel all that tired. Then one afternoon I went to bed at 2 pm, and had alarms set to wake me up around 10 pm.

The alarms went off on schedule... I guess.

I say "I guess" because whether they did or not, I didn't wake up until 6 am the next morning. Luckily the only thing my supervisor had to say was, "Welcome to third shift..."

Guest's picture

I did graveyard shift for a few years in my early 20's. At the time, no husband or kids or school. It took me about 2 weeks to adjust and I used most of the advice from the article. I also dated someone on midnights and got used to keeping the schedule whether I worked or not.

Guest's picture

i used to work the night shift as well. i found that wearing a sleep mask also helped me block out much of the light. i had someone make me blackout curtains. this helped block out some of the sound as well as some of the light.

Guest's picture

I have worked the night shift for 5 years and it all began when I when back to college and no, I am not in my early twenties.

I have tried earplugs but could not get over the fact that I could hear (and focus on) the sound of blood rushing through my head rather than sleeping. These were not for me.

When I first began my job I had attempted to use OTC, non-drowsy sleep remedies suggested by my doctor but found that the slighest sound, especially when attempting to sleep during the day would wake me up and then I would just be groggy (from lack of sleep as well as the remedy.)

I finally phased out what others may perceive to be "normal" scheduled times for entertaining other life events and quit living by "others" schedules. I found I had to keep my phone off (or on silent mode), talk to individuals on "my time" rather than theirs to avoid being stimulated by a conversation and then attempting to sleep and alternate when I ran errands such as grocery shopping, for example, to when I was off work in the mornings.

One simply cannot maintain a normal Monday - Friday, 8am to 4:30pm schedule while working nights. You have to really focus on what stimulates you during your awake times and avoid those if you need to go back to sleep, alternate when you see friends/ family (ex: limiting to days off) and performing everyday tasks on either mornings when you are getting off of work or days off (if tasks are minimal).

It is truely a different schedule you have to live by and yes, there really is no time for friendly get togethers after work (or before) if you like to stay healthy and maintain your sanity. Day shift workers who have never worked nights will NEVER understand where you are coming from so don't even try to accomodate their needs or explain. Focus on you and what you need to do until you either switch to a day position or find that working nights allows you the freedom that you were always searching for. :)

Andrea Karim's picture

I worked graveyard shift when I was in college, and I will never do it again. It's not because I am particularly social - I'm just not a night person. I could wake up at 4AM every morning if I had to, but stay awake past 10PM? It's just not within my physical abilities.

Guest's picture

I've worked as a 7p-7a nurse for two years now, and I agree with everything listed above. The biggest thing that has helped me work my 12 to 14-hour shifts without being too tired is that I keep a night-shift schedule even on my days off. Now I rarely get tired before eight a.m. and usually sleep till four or five. I find plenty to do at night, whether it be hanging out at the local 24-hour cafe or exercising or chilling with my roommate and next door neighbor, both of whom are third shift nurses as well. For me, the extra money is worth the bad schedule, although I plan to switch to days if I ever settle down and have kids. Bottom line, if you're relatively unattached, nightshift is a great idea, but you have to be able to set your own schedule and do whatever you need to adapt.

Meg Favreau's picture

A friend of mine used to date a third-shift nurse who worked nights three days a week and tried to keep a normal schedule the other four -- I can't imagine how mentally and physically trying that must've been!

Guest's picture
Jim Garcia

The one stand out truth about this article along with the following comments is that everyone is different. I've worked in the bakery business from 1978-1985 and returned in 1999 to current, driving a tractor trailer rig. Bakeries are known for not only graveyard shifts but also split shifts. Sundays and Tuesdays off among too many other odd schedules to describe. I refused to keep the night schedule sleep pattern during my nights off from day one. That's a recipe for a social shut-in. At 21 years of age in 78, it took a solid year to acclimate. I find it much easier to do now than in the early days but my moves are as follows. I live where the environment is quite or I move and have. Blacked out dark room, very cool inside house, fan or some kind of consistent low level noise, I put a cat door on the bedroom door so the cats can come and go (cats hate closed doors and will cry and paw the door), shower and be totally comfortable. Above all, prior to my shift, I will nap, depending on my start time. Varied amounts depending on my start and personal schedule. I've been known to split my sleep and make it work. My body seems to function well if I get my accumulated sleep throughout the week even if its catchup sleep. Careful about the caffeine. When asked about this lifestyle, in a joking way but a truthful answer is that "I make a deal with my body that it'll get the sleep it needs and I always keep my promise" My body seems to accept this offer just fine. All this along with softball twice a week. Good luck to all.

Guest's picture

Not only can being sleep deprived be detrimental to your work quality, it can seriously harm your overall health. Yeah I understand that some people see that this is the only option, as making more during the night shift may be vital to paying bills and so on, but if this is the case, its important to sleep during the not if only for your body to be able to function somewhat normally.For families, there may be better alternatives than one parent working the night shift. Taking on smaller side jobs might work better than risking time, health and safety for a full time night shift career.

Guest's picture

It's great if a person has a choice, but many people don't. Like the author, I'm also in the manufacturing field, and I'm being forced to transfer to third shift next week for the long term. My "extra money" will be nothing more than a $0.05 raise, and if I don't take the third shift position, I will be terminated without the possibility of receiving unemployment benefits. I was also recently diagnosed with an incurable chronic pain disease, and going to third shift is going to have horrific effects on my health, not to mention make medical appointments much, much more difficult to accommodate.

Working over-night hours promotes heart disease, cancer, depression, weight gain, and general illness. It is a pox.

Guest's picture

I was forced to work the night shift in a grocery store or be fired. I really wish I would have simply gotten fired and received unemployement because now, 15 years later my sleep cycles are so messed up that my health is very poor. I only worked the night shift for 2 years...

Guest's picture

Some jobs require SOMEONE to be working them at night. (Hospitals, Police, Firefighters, and Paramedics, for instance). I'm a nurse, and you can't tell me that you would want the whole hospital to shut down overnight. I'd love it if my local hospitals would cut back to 3 8-hour shifts a day instead of 2 12-hour ones, but that's not an option right now. The only advantage of 12 hour shifts is that I get 4 days off a week and sometimes I can get them in a row.

Guest's picture

I've worked night shift for 5 years(three 12 hour shifts a week). I sleep from about 2am-9am on my days off, and 7am-2pm on work days.

Things that have helped:
I always take naps with my toddler!
black-out curtains
keep the room cool
I put a sign up to keep evangelists and UPS workers from knocking on my front door.