Return to On Working Graveyard Shift (thing)

I'm writing this at 3:53am. If I didn't check the clock, or notice that it's pitch-black outside, I'd have no clue. My body is pretty sure it's early afternoon.

I have always been a bit of a night owl. When I was a child, school mornings were always painful; I wasn't allowed to have coffee back then on the grounds that it might stunt my growth. I sure as hell could have used it, though; I was one crabby kid until I finally woke up around 10 or 11am.

I managed to dodge most early-morning classes in college and my first day job pretty much allowed me to set my own hours (ah, the halcyon days of the .com boom and low unemployment!) After that project went away, though, I ended up working an 8-to-5 web editing job in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

Having to fight through rush-hour traffic to stumble those front doors at 7:55am every weekday made me bitter. Bitter like the cheap-ass coffee I was drinking to keep myself going. And after a year of that, I wheedled my boss into letting me change my schedule. Due to my sleep and traffic stress, my temper had grown so foul I think she agreed to it out of mortal fear. But after I secured my 10am start time, I swore, "8am? Never again!"

More recently, I worked a university tech support job that had several negative qualities (unsustainably low pay, screaming customers, a women's restroom that was just a couple of mutant trout away from passing as a set from Cronenberg's eXistenZ). However, a major plus was that the second-shift schedule was perfect for me, sleep-wise: 1pm to 10pm.

But earlier this year, my bank account informed me on no uncertain terms that I needed a better-paying gig. So I got a job as a computer operator at a Very Large Computer Company. That's not a very descriptive occupational title; most everyone operates computers at their jobs these days, right? Let me explain. Soon after I started there, I dreamed that I was once again getting a tour of the server rooms, only this time, the racks of computers were arranged around two huge, towering chrome phalluses that glowed menacingly with pulsing veins made of red LEDs.

"Whatever happens," my supervisor warned me in the dream, "you can't let these bad boys go down. They'll take the whole room with them."

So. Yeah. When I'm not writing books, I fluff servers for a living, and call the system administrators when my gentle command-line keystrokes won't bring things back up. It's a technophile's delight.

The main catch of this job? It's overnight weekends, 9pm to 8am.

Admittedly, I love 8am for the first time in my life. But it's one thing to be a night owl working until 10 or 11 at night and going to bed at 3am; it's really quite another to have a completely reversed-from-typical schedule. At 3am on a weeknight, it's dark and quiet, unless you live downtown in some major metropolis. Falling asleep in the suburbs is really no problem unless you have insomnia.

But at 9 or 10am on a Saturday? It's damned bright outside. Birds are singing. Children are shrieking gleefully in the street. Your neighbor is firing up his Mustang with the Cherry Bomb glasspack exhaust less than 20 feet from your pillow.

Sleep just became a real challenge, kids. So, here's my advice for handling things should you ever find yourself in my work position.

Address the noise problem. There's going to be some kind of noise during the day; I count myself lucky that, having grown up with a yappy insomniac terrier, barking dogs don't wake me up. A good set of foam earplugs is important; if you find them uncomfortable, the white noise of a fan can help, too. If street noise is particularly bad, you might need to rearrange your sleeping space so that it's farther away from traffic. If you're on good terms with your neighbors, a friendly chat accompanied by a delivery of fresh-baked cookies can help convince them to save their power mowing or overhead dance practice for early evening instead of late morning.

Invest in good blackout curtains or a quality sleep mask. A lot of other night workers suggested blackout curtains (or the cheap and often community-forbidden alternative, aluminum foil over your bedroom windows). But when I'm not trying to sleep, I love natural light in the house; I didn't really want to block up the window. Furthermore, we would have to entirely close up the bedroom to block light from the other rooms in the house, and just imagining that made me feel claustrophobic.

So, I started trying out sleep masks. The one that's worked best for me has been the Bucky 40 Blinks Mask. It's been the most comfortable of the bunch, although it does put pressure on my ears that causes me to pull it off sometime after I've been asleep for a few hours, but at that point I'm snoozing away and the light that gets through the miniblinds doesn't awaken me. It does an excellent job of blocking light. The best part about the mask is that it is molded to a shape that comfortably cups over your eyes and doesn't put any pressure on them; I can't even feel it touching my eyelashes unless I face-plant into the pillow. Be warned that this mask is a challenge to clean; if you very carefully hand-wash it in cold water and Woolite it will probably hold together, but if you try it and like it you'll want to get more to have on hand.

Normalize your schedule before you start. You may think that it'll be no problem staying up all night your first day and just sticking with it; most of us need time to adjust. Try to start your new schedule at least a week before you start your new shift. It's not so much a matter of making it through your shift as it is ensuring that you don't fall asleep at the wheel going home. One of my coworkers did just that, and woke up with his car in a ditch. Fortunately he wasn't hurt, but if he'd veered in the other direction he could have killed himself and others.

Once you're on your new schedule, stick with it on your weekends. Yes, this is a pain. The temptation to just stay up after work so you can run errands or go have fun with daywalker friends on the weekends may be overwhelming. And sometimes it works out fine. But I guarantee that if you make shorting yourself on rest a habit you'll snore right through that matinee you've been looking forward to.

Avoid caffeine if you can. I know, I know -- this piece of advice is surely crazy-talk, right? How can you possibly pull an all-nighter without coffee or energy drinks? Well, until you're used to your schedule, you will have to have some caffeine on hand. But for your own health, it's best not to get addicted to the stuff, and furthermore, if you're drinking coffee up until quitting time to make sure you can safely drive yourself home, chances are good you'll find yourself wide awake when it's time to get some rest. And so you'll short yourself on sleep, and the vicious cycle will continue.

If work is slow, keep your brain engaged. Thanks to Uberbanana for this suggestion. My job is relatively fast-paced, but if you're doing something that involves a lot of watching and waiting, it can be deadly hard to stay awake. Keep your brain active with music, or watch movies or read comics if you're allowed (text plus art works better than text alone for brain stimulation).

Get some exercise on your meal break. If you don't have delayed sleep phase disorder like me, your body will be primed to try to make you sleep between 4am and 6am. These are difficult hours to try to work through, and dangerous hours to be on the road. My company has an on-site gym with 24-hour access, and I've had very good luck using my "lunch" hour to go lift weights and work out on the elliptical machine. I come back with feeling energized, and by the time my post-workout boost has subsided, the sun is up and I don't have a problem getting myself home. As an added bonus, exercise will help fend off the weight gain a lot of night shifters face due to metabolic changes. If you can't really get any good cardio exercise where you're working ....

Take a nap. It often doesn't pay to fight your body; a forty-minute nap can help out a whole lot if you're feeling sleepy. If there's no comfy couch available, I highly recommend the Wrap-a-Nap. I tested this as a possible sleep mask, and while it's too hot and bulky for sleeping in bed in the summertime, it's just the thing for putting your head down on the conference table in an unoccupied meeting room. The WAN absolutely blocks all light and also muffles ambient sounds, but isn't as good as a pair of foam earplugs.

Take your vitamins: C and D and B-complex. Your new night schedule makes it tough for your body to get enough sun to competently produce Vitamin D on its own. Furthermore, you might need more of the vitamin than your body would normally produce anyhow. The shift in schedule is going to stress your system, and you're going to be more prone to getting colds and other infections than you were before. Vitamins D and C play important roles in immune health; a little extra zinc probably wouldn't be a bad idea, either (but go easy on it; zinc is more toxic when you overdose than the others). B vitamins boost your energy, which is why they're in every energy drink on the market; taking a moderately-dosed B-complex tablet at the start of your shift is much cheaper (and probably healthier) than pounding down Monsters all night.

Don't take on too much while you're adjusting. I screwed myself there. In addition to the new job with the new schedule I decided I would make a bunch of other changes to my life to try to make it better. I realistically should have waited for all those other life changes, because I ended up stressing myself out and developed a lot of anxiety that resulted in a mini-meltdown. It only lasted a couple of days, but it was supremely unpleasant, and hard on the people close to me.

So, let me be a lesson to you: take it easy until you've adjusted. If you have a history of anxiety or depression, make sure you have ready access to professional assistance. If you used to have depression, get a refill of your previous prescription (provided it worked, of course) just in case. The unfortunate reality is that if you're having a mental health crisis in the U.S., it's very hard to get immediate assistance, and if things are going bad, three or four days really can mean the difference between life and death. Aside from not taking on too much, there's another important thing you can do to maintain your mental health ....

Take the time to see your friends and family. With your schedules in diametric opposition, seeing the people who matter to you can require a lot of planning. Sometimes it will seem like more work than it's worth. But don't let them fall by the wayside. It's very easy to start feeling lonely and isolated, and frustrated because there's nobody to talk to at 4am. If you just can't see your old friends, use E2 or Facebook and other social networking and find some new buddies on the other side of the planet you can Skype with.

If you're faced with a new night shift schedule, I hope you've found this writeup helpful. You shouldn't have to sacrifice your health and happiness for the sake of your job.

And if you're not on graveyards but have a friend or relative who is, I hope this helps you understand the challenges they're facing a little bit better. So be a pal and schedule that weekend movie or club meeting for 7pm instead of 2pm, eh?

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