I’ve been working crazy hours!
Are you stuck working nights or afternoons, when everyone else is on a nine-to-five schedule? Actually, not everyone works during the day. Twenty percent of American workers do shift work –in the evening, at night or rotating between different times of day.
If you are a nurse, a trucker, a security guard or anyone else who’s spent extended time on a graveyard shift, you know that it messes with your body’s natural rhythms. Studies indicate that 80 percent of night-shift workers have trouble sleeping. And if you aren’t getting proper sleep, other problems will follow. A British studyshows shift workers are 23 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks. A Canadian study says that they are almost twice as likely to be injured on the job.
In fact, sleep experts say that many of the worst industrial disasters of recent decades – including nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the Bhopal chemical spill, the Exxon Valdez crash – were caused, in part, by workers suffering from fatigue due to irregular shift work.
What to do about working crazy hours.
While you might not be able to shift entirely away from shift work, there are ways to make it more bearable.
- Take care of yourself. When working irregular hours, it’s more important than ever to get proper sleep and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Some suggestions hereand here, including: stick to a regular sleep schedule, avoid sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods, and make sure family and neighbors know your schedule.
- If you have to sleep during the day, pretend it’s night: Use room-darkening shades, run a fan to block out noise, turn off your phone… and relax before bed, just as you would at night. Even if it’s the middle of the day.
- Talk to your fellow workers. If you work in a hospital, a firehouse, a three-shift factory, a power plant or another round-the-clock operation, there’s no getting around the fact that somebody has to work odd hours. But how shift work is scheduled is another matter. Why should the boss make all the decisions, if you’re the one who has to work the crummy shifts? Getting everyone involved will often produce a better result for your entire team.
Solutions that work: In unionized workplaces, a contract will often include provisions for shift work to be scheduled by seniority. The longer you stay at your workplace – demonstrating your ability and commitment – the more choice you get about your working hours. Some people actually like working midnight shifts, or an afternoon shift from 3 to 11 p.m. For those who don’t, a seniority system offers the possibility of moving off an undesirable shift when spots open up on the schedule. Union contracts also often include a shift premium, offering extra pay for unusual working hours that disrupt family and personal life.
Seniority and shift premiums can also be implemented in non-union workplaces – if you and your co-workers can convince your boss to agree.
Rotate clockwise: Some round-the-clock workplaces use rotation as a strategy to address the problems of shift work. Since working midnights kind of sucks, why not take turns, so nobody has to do it all the time? A problem with this approach is that by rotating when you work, you rotate when you sleep, which can really mess with your body rhythms. Sleeping days one week and nights the next can leave you feeling constantly sleep deprived, as if you had jet lag every day of the week.
Sleep scientists say that if you must rotate your work schedule, it’s best to do it clockwise: A stretch of day shifts should be followed by a schedule of afternoon shifts, then a midnight to morning graveyard shift. That’s because your body naturally drifts ahead to catch up on sleep; a clockwise rotation is more in sync with your natural rhythms and will allow better sleep and less fatigue on the job. A study by a Harvard sleep expert of the Philadelphia police department found that switching from a counterclockwise to a clockwise work rotation resulted in:
"[A] dramatic decrease in daytime sleepiness and on-the-job drowsy driving accidents… greater productivity, better performance, and increased safety for police officers and for the citizens of Philadelphia who depend on them."
Government Agency: “Extended/Unusual Work Shifts,” OSHA.gov
Article: “Working Irregular Hours Can Be Hazardous to Your Health,” LATimes.com
Article: “Strategies for Nurses to Prevent Sleep-Related Injuries and Errors” Rehabilitation Nursing, rehabnurse.og
Article: “Make Changes at Work,” HealthySleep.med.harvard.edu
Booklet: “Plain Language about ShiftWork,” National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
If you have a chance to talk with your boss or supervisor about how to handle problems associated with shift work, you can share these recommendations for managers from the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA):
- Limit the use of extended shifts.
- Provide additional rest and meal breaks for longer shifts.
- Schedule tasks requiring heavy lifting or intense mental focus for early in a shift.
- Learn to recognize symptoms of fatigue.
- Have adequate staff available so that fatigued workers can rest.
- Encourage micro-breaks throughout the shift.
- When rotating shifts, make sure workers have adequate rest and recovery time between the shift changes.