“Oh wow, I could NEVER work shift work” and other comments we get. If you haven’t worked shift work it is truly difficult to understand what a shift work lifestyle would entail. On the other hand, if you work a shift work schedule it can feel impossible to imagine life without it. There are so many glorious upsides to shift work, grocery shopping with the retiree’s at 1:00pm on a Tuesday for example. We have amazing flexibility for appointments, shopping and errands, even activities with other shift worker friends or friends on parental leave during the week. As a shift worker I cannot imagine how people get to appointments for themselves, let alone their children working conventional schedules! However, if you haven’t worked it yourself or lived with a shift worker it is hard to understand what this life looks like. No one ever knows if and when I am working, and as many good things we can enjoy during the week that others can’t, we miss so many more due to our schedule. We can even get shamed for it! “You are working this weekend AGAIN? ” People either think we never work, or we are always at work. If you are among the lucky who get to work night shifts *insert eye roll* you know that comes with a whole other slew of problems. This is not to say there aren’t people out there who love and manage night shifts and cannot imagine working during the day! However, I think for most of us, aside from the incentive night shift pay, we could really do without them.
All of this being said, I think we can all agree the most difficult part of working a shift work schedule, particularly one including night shifts, is SLEEP! Sleep is something we often take for granted. I sure did, I spent most of the first 3 decades of my life completely disregarding my need to sleep. If you haven’t hit the breaking point of poorly managed sleep, may the odds be ever in your favour. For me, the tipping point was my mental health. Anxiety plagued daily, seeking any solution, including medications that were minimally effective, I finally started to take some sleep therapy advice and make some changes. The difference between working, and frankly just living, sleep deprived and doing it rested isn’t even on the same spectrum. Managing is the key word, sleep must be managed as a shift worker for us to function on any sort of normal level. If you know or love a shift worker have you checked on them lately? Social jet lag is the accepted term for what we experience every, single, day. Changing our sleep and wake times day to day, switching between day shift, evening shift, and night shift means sleep regularity is but a mere concept we have heard of.
To manage sleep, a shift worker has to be a little bit selfish, if you have a family this is extremely difficult. It requires prioritization and acknowledgement of the need for 7-9 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, day or night. Shift workers are notorious for disregarding the need for sleep when it comes to night shift. In my 10 years of being a shift worker I can probably count on one hand how many of my hundreds of coworkers truly placed the same importance on sleep in the day and at night. I am fortunate to now have a very supportive partner who also values sleep, but I do know this is not the case for most. It is not uncommon for my coworkers to be up cooking meals, preparing children for school, picking up from daycare, the list goes on and on. I hate to say it but, the majority of these coworkers are women. It is no secret that the bulk of the family duties continue to fall on the shoulders of women regardless of work schedule and responsibilities. This means, some women might be operating and running their households on as little as 4, 2, even 1 hour of sleep! Can you imagine?
Prioritization of sleep means setting boundaries with your family and friends. That is not easy! This is compounded by the guilt that we feel for missing so much of life already because of our schedules. It. Is. Hard. No doubt about that, but it is not impossible. There is also the best unintentional consequence, you may inspire other people around you to do the same. Prioritizing sleep means more sleep, the benefits of increasing sleep quantity alone without even touching sleep quality would be enough to motivate you, believe me. Improved mental health, gut health, clearer thinking, better memory, resilience to stress, improved mood and emotional regulation (this one really hits home for me), honestly every aspect of health and wellness. There truly is not a downside to making an effort to get more rest.
To make this happen it will require some serious conversations, with your social support net, be it family, friends, or even coworkers. Create a system to support sleep for each other especially around night shifts. Arrange for school or daycare pickups for each other so that you can spend your day focusing on getting adequate sleep or at minimum, rest. Find an opposite shift coworker who also has kids and needs help and be a sleep support team! Ask for help from your family if you have that option, or a friend or neighbour. Better yet, if you are reading this and are not a shift worker, offer to help! Shift work does not have to be a sleep death sentence, it just requires some planning and yep, I'm going to say it again, prioritization. Find out for yourself what it feels like to work without extreme sleep deprivation, I promise it will not disappoint.