How to work unsociable hours

Radio Producer Andy Walton often works while other people are playing.  He has some advice for those of us who have to work unsociable hours.

During the course of my career, I’ve become well-known in my circle of friends for leaving things early. Weddings, parties and gigs are just some of the social events which have continued long after I’ve left. But it’s not just pure enjoyment I’ve bailed out of early. I’ve also left behind Church services, small group meetings and Bible studies.

Why? Those fateful words: “I’m working in the morning”. To which the response is usually “Ooh, rather you than me” because they know by “morning”, I’m more likely to mean 6am than 9am.

It’s one of many occupation hazards of working in media – and particularly my field of radio. But it’s one I’ve had to get used to, and in some ways have grown to enjoy.

Here’s my top five tips for those of us forced to work usual hours.

1. Be disciplined!

This is a classic case of me not practicing what I’m about to preach – but a bit of self-control can go a long way to making life easier. If you’re on an early shift, getting to bed at a decent hour is vital. But one more episode of the West Wing can’t hurt, can it? Surely I need to watch the end of Newsnight to be fully informed for my shift? I need to make time for my husband or wife, and s/he’s not getting in till late! All good reasons/excuses not to go to bed. But if they’re also reasons for making you tired and worse at your job, they’re bad for you!

It works the other way round too. If you’re on a late shift, be disciplined. You can allow yourself a lie-in, of course. But if your shift doesn’t start until 2pm, there’s plenty that can be achieved in that time!

2. Be sensible

Some jobs will involve a permanently ‘unsociable’ shift pattern. In that case it’s easier to get into a ‘routine’, albeit an abnormal one. But others (especially freelancers) will be expected to work night shifts one week, and breakfast shifts the next. This can play havoc with your body clock and lead to you feeling run-down. If you are freelance, there is of course the temptation to say yes to any and every shift going. But is it sensible to put your body through that? Probably not.

3. Be honest and open

Friends and family may have never worked strange shifts, so they may be completely unaware of the impact it has. If you’re falling asleep in the middle of the sermon at church (a regular risk for me) then it may be better to try a different service time – your family could probably accommodate this – but only if you spell out why it’s required.

It’s easy enough to pretend shift work has no impact on your mood and temperament, but we all probably know deep down that’s not true. Close friends and family will see through any attempt to pretend everything’s fine, so be honest with them about how they can help you to lead as normal a life as possible.

4. If it’s killing you, stop it!

Each organisation will be different, but most will have some flexibility with the hours you can work. Most media-types will have to work some unusual hours at some stage in their lives, and different people will respond to it in different ways. I’m in awe of people who’ve done breakfast shifts for many years – I have no idea how they keep their stamina – but many do! If that’s you, and you feel comfortable, then for Goodness sake – stay where you are.

But if crazy shift patterns are starting to have an effect on your well-being, then see what can be done to change it. If you’re young, single and relatively junior, it may be asking too much to work a ‘normal’ shift pattern. But as time progresses many companies will take account of your circumstances and feelings. Don’t be afraid to tell your boss you need more sleep, and try to work something out.

If you genuinely hate shift work, then maybe it’s best for you to attempt to find a 9-5 role. They do exist, even in the media!

5. Enjoy the benefits.

There are many disadvantages to working unsociable hours (they’re called that for a reason, after all!) But there are also many joys. Having a Tuesday free to yourself means you can avoid long queues at shops, post offices and hairdressers, meaning your chores are done in record time! In the same way – relish the days you do have off.

Driving in the opposite direction to the flow of commuter traffic can be a joy – and seeing the sun rise over a lovely river will often make up for an early start. There are real pleasures to shift work that those of us in the club can really appreciate.

It may be demoralising to be heading into the office on a Friday evening when it seems the whole world is gearing up to have fun. But when you have a Monday off, the roles are reversed and you are the one to be envied! Enjoy it!

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  • Ruth

    I was given a few practical tips on managing night shifts which help me:

    1. Take a jumper for the cold spot around 3-4am. Your body temperature drops around this time to help you have deeper sleep!

    2. Make sure you eat properly. It’s easy to find yourself eating cereal / toast at each meal. I’ve found having a hearty breakfast around 5am sets me up to sleep well in the day. I then have something simple when I wake up and a proper meal later in the evening before setting out for my shift. Keeping my meals at roughly the same time as when doing day shifts helps to keep my stomach from becoming too unsettled.

    3. Wear sunglasses on the way home so the light doesn’t wake you up too much!

    4. Work out how much sleep you need – I need lots so when turning my body round at the end of a run of nights, I sleep all day after the night shift, have an evening, then sleep all night. Some people can’t do this so they set an alarm and get up mid-afternoon in order to be sleepy at bedtime.

    • Paul Arnold

      Thanks Ruth, good stuff. It’s been a few years since I did nights. Remember overshooting my station on the way home and then having to cram in with the commuters to get back to my stop. Not the best morning!