How to survive shift work

How do you cope if you are working when everyone else is sleeping?

Adrian Butcher has worked night shifts in a newsroom for nigh-on twenty years. We woke him up (very gently) to ask for tips on how to survive.

It’s a warm, summer Sunday evening. The sun is painting the sky deep reds as it dips below the South Downs. I should be sipping a pint in the garden of a country pub.

But I’m not. Instead I am waiting to board a train to London where an 11-hour nightshift at work awaits me. My weekend has come to a premature end. Playtime is over.

Once at work I will spend the night resisting the chemicals in my body telling me that because it’s dark outside I should be asleep. I will fight them by drinking too much caffeine and will comfort myself with crisps and chocolate.

Overnight I will write the news that people demand to be able to hear as they wolf down their breakfast. And then, unshaved, dishevelled and shattered, I will stagger to the tube station. I will board a train packed full of clean, perfumed commuters, bright-eyed and raring to go. I will try not to fall asleep standing up (I’ve done it – it is very embarrassing and looks utterly ridiculous). Sleep will usually overcome me on the train home. My twin hopes will be that I won’t miss my stop and that I won’t snore or drool.

At the end of my stint of nightshifts I will have several days to recover. Now here’s the pleasant side of shift work: time off when most of the rest of the workforce is at the coalface. Shorter queues everywhere, less traffic, it’s the ideal opportunity for that pub lunch. Trouble is, all my friends will be at work.

I hate nightshifts. I’ve endured them on and off for almost 20 years. They are bad for your body and bad for your mind. They undermine your friendships and they dislocate families. Not for nothing are nights ‘the graveyard shift’. They are the worst. But not by much.

The early-bird shift can be pleasant mid-summer, if you are clocking off mid-afternoon. But you are forever Cinderella, disappearing early from any midweek social gathering to get a night’s sleep. Work the afternoon/evening shift and you won’t see your family or friends much. Or get to concerts, evening classes, prayer nights or the cinema.

But shiftwork is endemic and here to stay. If we want a 24/7 society – and it seems more than a critical mass of us does – then shiftwork is the price that many of us will have to pay. And the blessed remainder, the chosen ones still basking in a routine approaching 9-to-5 will have to indulge us. For we may be unavailable. Or available but very grumpy.

So, how to survive shift work other than a prescription of caffeine, chocolate, anti-depressants and developing the skill to catnap? I say survive because I have done no more than that. Shift work has undermined many of my friendships and has seen me drift to the edge of my church.

Be kind to your body. Give yourself time to recover from an arduous series of shifts. Get enough sleep. Eat proper food. Do some exercise.

Take care of your relationships. Make sure your friends/family know when you are around and when you aren’t so you don’t get left out. Use sites like Facebook to stay in touch. Find an activity which you can enjoy during the “downtime” when no-one else is around. Be careful: shift work can damage marriages, driving a wedge between you and your partner – and pushing you towards colleagues who share your antisocial work pattern. Your immune system is not the only defence weakened by lack of sleep.

Of course shift work can bind together colleagues in strong friendships where common adversity leads to the darkest humour. One former editor colleague told of how, at the end of a particularly arduous stint of overnights, he arrived at his rail terminus feeling he had earned a reward. And so, just before 10am, rather ragged and sporting a stubbly chin, he bought himself an ice-cold can of strong lager and found a table seat on the train home.

As he nursed the can, there was a tap on the window. Outside stood three old friends not seen since their days at one of the better universities. The trio were dressed immaculately. They waved warmly. My friend waved back weakly. Then they boarded the train and joined him, keen to catch up on the intervening years. You can only guess at their incredulity as my semi-bearded, beer-swilling friend tried to explain that he was a senior editor in a national newsroom. Nightshifts can be cruel.