It’s 3 a.m. when firefighter Molly* jolts awake. Great, just great, she thinks. Molly works 10 24-hour shifts a month and, but this is a night where she’s home in her own bed. “I fall asleep easily, but have problems staying asleep,” she says. When she clocks her rest at the firehouse, she has to be up and ready in mere seconds at the sound of an (extremely loud) siren. Knowing she might have to be awake and alert enough to make literal life or death decisions makes for terrible sleep during shifts. And because her body’s conditioned to spring into action at any time, she has trouble getting quality sleep at home, too.
Kimberly Brown, MD, a 34-year-old ER doctor living in Memphis can relate. Her schedule is all over the place; sometimes she works 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., and other times it’s 8 p.m. to 7 p.m. “My night shifts are never more than three days in a row, so I don’t get too used to it,'” she says. Still, because her hours change so often (and to such a high magnitude), she says it’s hard to get consistent, quality sleep.
Chasing enough sleep is a pursuit that keeps so many of us awake at night—and in the case of night shift workers, during the day, too. According to Well+Good’s recent survey of nearly 1,500 people about their sleep habits and health, 92 percent of of us feel fatigued more than one day per week and 65 percent point to general stress, like what Molly feels, as a shut-eye precluding cause. And the uptick in cortisol spikes we’re experiencing as a chronically stressed society doesn’t help us doze off.
But, what happens to that already troubled sleep sitch when there’s an added variable of not working a traditional nine-to-five job? Here, people who work the night shift, sometimes or always, get real about how it affects them, and experts share what impact the lifestyle can have on the body. (Spoiler: It’s actually not bad news for everyone.)
How an ever-changing work schedule affects the body
“The problem with working a night shift—whether it’s consistently or some of the time—is that it messes up our circadian rhythm, which is our internal time clock,” says Joseph Ojile, MD, founder, CEO, and medical director of Clayton Sleep Institute. “If you work nights three times a week, that’s essentially the same as flying to Paris and living in Paris three days a week and then flying home.” In other words, you feel jet lagged all the time—without the perk of getting to visit an exotic locale.
This causes circadian rhythm misalignment, meaning your internal time clock is out of sync with the life you’re living. “Consequently, you’re getting tired when you need to be awake, and you’re getting aroused and waking up when you should be trying to sleep,” says Dr. Ojile. He adds that for people who work nights, it’s not like they come home and sleep for eight hours. “They’re also trying to see their kids, do their errands, and get other things done [that need to happen during daytime]. And that’s when they become chronically sleep deprived,” he says.
To realign your circadian rhythm, Dr. Ojile suggests clocking your sleep in “phases,” and tricking your body into thinking it’s night, even when it’s really broad daylight. Because when you’re a shift worker trying to get enough sleep, the name of the game is taking it where you can get it.
The case for an afternoon siesta
Sleep bombshell: Thanks to polyphasic sleep, you don’t necessarily have to log your entire shut-eye sesh in one go. Dr. Ojile explains that it takes the body about 90 minutes to cycle completely through the phases of sleep, and the goal is to get a total of seven to eight hours. Whether this happens at one time or is split into 90-minute blocks, your body should be able to reap the benefits of restfulness.
Research has shown that if someone who works untraditional hours adopts polyphasic sleep patterns—going to bed, getting up and doing errands, and then going back to bed—it can work, and that when someone is sleep-deprived, they cycle though REM phases faster (increasing the efficacy of polyphasic sleep in a pinch). If you’re sleep-deprived, something is better than nothing. Even if it’s a few naps in the glow of bright natural light.
Working against the sun
The first step for sleeping successfully in the middle of the day when the literal world suggests being awake is the more natural option is having a routine that winds you down. “Sleep isn’t a switch; you can’t go straight from on to off,” says Tim Bono, PhD, a psychology and brain science expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “But you can start doing activities that will, over time, prime your body for sleep.”
“Sleep isn’t a switch; you can’t go straight from on to off. But you can start doing activities that will, over time, prime your body for sleep.” —Tim Bono, PhD, a psychology and brain science expert
À la Pavolv’s dog, if your sleep routine is to have a cup of tea and listen to a podcast before you hit the lights, your body will start entering a restful state whenever you have a cup of tea, listen to a podcast, and hit the lights—no matter what time it is.
Marissa Scheiner, a 25-year-old nurse, swears by several strategies that help her wind down. “I worked a night shift for a year and a half, getting home at 9 a.m.,” she says. “On my way home from work, I would wear these blue-light blocking glasses and put my phone on Night Shift mode to block the blue light because even light from your phone can affect your sleep. In my room, I have blackout shades and a sunlight stimulator, so I could wake up to something mimicking the sun.”
Not everyone thrives on a daytime schedule
“Working during the day isn’t best for everyone,” Dr. Ojile says. “A small percentage of people are night owls, where their bodies and overall well being is actually better at night.” So while society tends to praise early risers and value a nine-to-five work schedule, it really not a one-time-frame-fits-all situation.
Though Dr. Ojile says science to explain this is lacking, it nonetheless rings true for 29-year-old newspaper photo editor Amanda Savinon, who works 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday one week a month. (The other three weeks, she works days.) “When I work on my own personal photo editing, I feel most productive at night,” she says. “And when I’m working the night shift at work, I don’t feel tired at all.”
On those nights, she’ll either go out with her colleagues for a post-work drink (any hour can be happy hour, right?), or she’ll head home and watch Netflix for couple hours before finally turning off her lights at 5 a.m. “I make my room really dark when I come from the night shift,” she says. “I make sure all the curtains are fully closed and there are no cracks. I even cover the lights on my printer.” And for her, the arrangement totally works.
Like Savinon, most people sleep better when it’s dark (which typically happens at night, unless you trick out your room like she does). But Dr. Ojile says for a small extreme night-owl demographic (about 10 percent of the population), light inexplicably doesn’t affect them. But if you’re not a night owl and your job forces you to sleep during the day, he says do your body—and circadian rhythm—a favor and get some blackout shades.
Social well being
Regardless of your night-owl status, working during nontraditional hours can have a huge impact on your social life—which is a big deal. “A sense of social connection is arguably the single strongest predictor of an individual’s psychological health and well-being,” says Dr. Bono.
For 26-year-old Brie Roche Lilliott, that social struggle was all too real. For about two years, she worked two jobs: as a retail manager during the day and a bartender at night. The bar didn’t close until 4 a.m., and she didn’t get home until around 6 a.m, making it difficult to muster the energy to see her friends and boyfriend, even if she did have room in her calendar. “I felt so exhausted from my schedule that I found myself canceling the plans I did make,” she says. “I didn’t have the energy to do fun things when I wasn’t working; I just wanted to chill out.”
A few months ago, she quit both jobs and is now working freelance writing gigs. “My mental health has improved so much,” she says. “My boyfriend and I have more quality time together because I actually have the energy to go out, and I started doing yoga again, something I really love.”
Of course many people have to hold multiple jobs or work during nontraditional hours, and that doesn’t mean you have to pick between sleep and a social life.”If there’s something that’s important coming up, like a relative’s birthday, I would communicate to the people planning the celebration how much it means for you to be there and see if they can’t work with your schedule a bit,”Dr. Bono suggests. Sure, you’ll likely not make it to every event, but with an eye on the future and organized planning in place, you won’t need to miss everything.
Working an untraditional work schedule does increase the risk for not getting enough sleep, but it doesn’t have to seal a chronically fatigued fate. The situation simply requires a bit more creativity, effort, and maybe some really good light-blocking shades.
*Name has been changed
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