The nine-to-five is dead. Or at least it’s no longer a given to work regular office hours. The tech revolution means many of us are taking on tasks over evenings and weekends, sometimes even pulling all-nighters, to meet deadlines. And with globalization and business connections criss-crossing the planet, many employees – in everything from IT and customer service to transportation and round-the-clock retailing – now hit the office after dark, when their clients in a different time zone are just getting ready to pour their a.m. coffee.
This trend has seen an expansion of the workforce that does shifts, broadening it from the usual suspects: health-care workers, police officers, flight attendants, and fire fighters. Indeed, according to the Ontario-based Workers Health and Safety Centre, one in four Canadian employees now do shifts, while one in five work the night shift, a.k.a. the graveyard shift, specifically.
Thinking of taking on a night shift? Here are four tips that will help you get started on the right foot.
Look on the bright side
Going to work after sundown has its advantages, including quiet time. Unlike during the day, there are often fewer interruptions, so you can concentrate on the task at hand – provided you are well rested. (More on sleep further down.) You also have the chance to run errands and make appointments during the daytime, when, for instance, family doctors and dentists are working. And you could stand to earn more money with a shift premium on top of your salary or wage – a payoff for missing out on time with friends and family, and, well, sleep when your body tells you that you should.
…But be aware of the drawbacks
Still, the night shift is not for everyone, as it does take a toll on the body. We are diurnal creatures, and as such are programmed to sleep at night, and be awake during the day. Many bodily functions are programmed to slow down at night and rev up during the day, or the other way around, and studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. have shown that working when the body would rather get some Zs can have negative health effects, from stress, sleep deprivation, and decreased mental alertness, to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and an increased risk of cancer.
It sounds pretty grim, but there are ways to mitigate these effects, the most important of which is to ensure you get enough sleep every day. Both the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend adults get a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night. Shift workers need to aim for the same amount – at least.
Ease into it
To limit the physical drawbacks of working nights, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety suggests gradually adjusting your sleep pattern ahead of your first shift. A few days before the night shifts starts, adjust your sleep pattern so that you go to bed a bit later each day, and sleep until a bit later in the morning. After you finish the shift, do the same thing in reverse: gradually go to bed earlier and get up earlier. And do take naps when you need to, so that you don’t end up with a sleep deficit. This, of course, works best when your employer creates a schedule that allows for enough time to adjust between shifts, for instance if you are on days for, say, three weeks between night duties as opposed to doing constantly rotating shifts. On a rotating shift schedule, the body doesn’t have enough time to adjust between shift changes, leading to sleepiness during your shift. This can lead to decreased mental alertness, with increases the potential for making mistakes or having an accident.
To improve sleep during the day, make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark. And to maintain as much normalcy as possible with family and friends, schedule quality time with them.
Focus on your diet
It’s also important to keep a few key things in mind for the actual shift. Eat light, healthy snacks, such as vegetables and fruits, throughout the night on your breaks; at night, the body doesn’t break down fats as easily so downing a burger and fries doesn’t do your health any favour. Get up and move as much as possible to keep alert, and make sure to drink lots of water.
In the end, surviving the night shift comes down to a lot of good old common sense: if you make sure to get lots of sleep, eat healthy and exercise, working at night can be a good thing for your career (and your life).
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