Coping with a career that demands working when others are sleeping

I’ve had more than 30 jobs in my life. Some of those jobs have caused me to adopt strange sleeping patterns in an effort to get the sleep I know I need. I’ve done everything from afternoons, overnights and a rotating schedule that changed my working hours every two weeks. I know from my own experience that these varying sleep schedules have had an effect on my mood, appetite, and quality of sleep. But how else have these odd sleeping patterns affected my overall health?

Are you a shift worker? Do you know what the risks are associated with working a job that causes you to sleep weird hours? Do you have a shift work sleep disorder?

What are shift workers?

The National Sleep Foundation states that anyone who follows a schedule outside of the normal 9 am to 5 pm workday is considered a shift worker. In the past, I’ve worked around some interesting schedules and have definitely made sacrifices in terms of my at night

  • Afternoons – Quite a few of my past jobs required me to work afternoons, typically 3 pm – 11 pm or something similar. When I managed a group home for mentally challenged adults, this was my schedule. While it might be an easy-to-manage shift for a night owl, an early bird such as myself found it hard to function most nights. I found that an afternoon nap before going in at 3 pm, helped me stay awake until the end of my shift. But I always dreaded being called in earlier in the afternoon – even 2:30 pm – as it robbed me of the chance to take a nap.
  • Overnights – Working overnight from 11 pm – 7 am has a host of unpleasant challenges. When I worked full-time at a 24-hour coffee shop, this was my schedule from Sunday to Thursday. Even when I was younger (and more of a night owl), I found this schedule difficult to maintain. From the 30,000 ft. perspective, it might look as though there 16 hours to choose from for sleep. In reality, I was tired all the time. On the weekends, I spent time with friends and family and slept at night like everyone else, which reset my body to a regular schedule. Each Sunday, I had to switch back to my overnight schedule, which was hard on my body, to say the least.
  • Rotational Shifts – This was easily the worst of all my jobs. When I was 18, after I finished high school, I took a year off to work and save money before attending college. I worked at a factory for an automobile manufacturer, making seats for SUVs. The worst part of the job was the schedule. For two weeks, I worked days 7 am – 3:30 pm and then switched to evenings from 5:30 pm – 2 am. My body never got used to this constantly rotating schedule. I don’t understand how I was a benefit to the company because I wasn’t an asset to myself.

The sad truth is that millions of people work shifts like these because it’s good for business in a global economy or they provide an essential service in the wee hours of the night. While this is great news for our ever-connected 24/7 world and the companies that profit from this increased productivity, it’s not so great for employees who work these shifts. As the National Sleep Foundation points out, this type of non-typical shift has “many inherent risks.”

Some of the drawbacks to excessive sleepiness can be:

  • Poor concentration
  • Absenteeism
  • Accidents
  • Errors
  • Injuries
  • Fatalities

Not only does being constantly tired affect on-the-job performance, but it also has risks in terms of long term health. Shift workers have an increased risk of developing chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and gastrointestinal diseases.

On a personal level, working on a non-traditional schedule can also mean less time with family. My dad worked evenings as a mechanic for years and the only time that we saw him growing up was weekends and before school. He came home after work at close to midnight – well past our bedtime. It wasn’t until high school that we stayed up late enough to see dad come home from work too.

Shift work sleep disorder

The International Classifications of Sleep Disorders indicates that shift work sleep disorder is considered a serious sleep disorder because it affects the 24-hour rhythmic output of the human biological clock. People suffer from both sleep disturbance and excessive sleepiness in trying to adapt to a shift work schedule.
Symptoms of shift work sleep disorder
• Excessive sleepiness is probably the most common
• Insomnia
• Disrupted sleeping schedules
• Reduced performance
• Difficulties with personal relationships
• Irritability/depressed mood

While understanding shift work sleep disorder is important, the treatment is a little more puzzling. There are some behavioral and pharmacological remedies that may help relieve symptoms, but research indicates the human body may never fully adapt to shift work.

So how do you get enough sleep as a shift worker?

One of the things that always helped me (and I’m still a big fan of today) is the afternoon nap. Getting enough sleep is essential to a healthy life and even a short nap during the day (or on a lunch break) can help you to get through the rest of your shift.

When you’re at home and trying to sleep while the rest of the world is awake, try blackening out your room to create the illusion of night. Avoid things like caffeine and alcohol as they’ll make it harder to sleep and try to stick to the same sleep routine as much as possible, even on weekends.

If you’re a shift worker, you might find some help sleeping with some advice from our Sleep

Are you a shift worker? What do you do to ensure you’re well-rested for work? Are there any tricks or advice you have? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below. We’d love to hear how you can sleep.


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This blog does not provide medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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