It’s around 5pm and, while City workers are making their way from the office to relax in sunny beer gardens, 31-year-old midwife Louise is getting ready for work. Instead of cereal, she grabs a baked potato to fuel her through a long night on the labour ward. “I feel jet-lagged when I come off nights if I’ve been eating at funny times, so I sleep during the day and then when I get up I’ll have dinner instead of breakfast,” she explains.
As a midwife, there’s no ‘typical’ shift: “We work 12 and a half hours, and most of the time is spent on your feet. We’re meant to get an hour and a half of that off, but that doesn’t always happen,” Louise says. “Through the night I tend to just try and drink lots of water, but I’ll inevitably end up, at about 3 o’clock, having something sugary because I’m tired and need something to get me through to the end.”
Not only are night workers perhaps more tempted to reach for something energising in the early hours, but studies also show they burn off fewer calories than those working and eating during the day. http://www.colorado.edu/news/releases/2014/11/17/working-night-shift-burns-less-energy-and-increases-risk-weight-gain.
As a result, the UK’s 3.5 million night workers have an increased risk of obesity, as well as coronary heart disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, back pain and certain cancers.
But working nights doesn’t only impact on your physical health; evidence suggests that night shift workers are also at increased risk of mental health problems like depression, stress and anxiety http://oem.bmj.com/content/58/1/68.full, and poor work-life balance . https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/AHardDaysNight.pdf
27-year-old cleaner Lisa used to work 11pm-7am shifts as a security guard and says that, although she rarely thought about the emotional impact at the time, “it definitely can have an effect on your emotional health because of how few people you get to meet and interact with on a day-to-day basis. The job was fairly uneventful to say the least, and it was rare for me to see more than two or three people throughout the shift.”
Although Louise works a mixture of day and night shifts, the majority of the hours she currently works are ‘unsocial’ hours, and the lack of a set shift pattern really impacts on her health and wellbeing.
“I sleep really badly most of the time, when I get ill it takes me longer to shake things off, and I’m constantly a little bit confused about what day it is – so generally I’m a bit out of step with the rest of the world,” she explains.
“I miss out on loads of things,” Louise adds. “It’s hard to have a normal life and work night shifts. The other week I missed a friend’s wedding – I was asleep all day while they were getting married, and by the time I woke up that night to go to work, all the pictures were up on Facebook.”
Besides the profoundly anti-social impact on her relationships with family and friends, Louise also has concerns about the impact of her sleep deprivation on her work: “I’ve never done anything unsafe, but I’ve definitely felt that I could be more switched on. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re exhausted from working your third or fourth night in a row. Just being awake for that many nights in a row sends you a bit loopy!”
Dr Alice Gregory, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths University, is researching the relationship between sleep problems and mental health http://www.gold.ac.uk/psychology/staff/gregory/. She told us: “Our body clock influences many of the systems and pathways in our bodies which control our mood. By messing with our clock it is unsurprising that our mood can be negatively impacted too. Another obvious candidate is one scientists sometimes refer to ‘social desynchronisation’, where shift work can lead people to be on a different schedule to others in society.”
For 26-year-old journalist Alex, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, working night shifts put added pressure on both him and his family. “For six months I was working production shifts on a national newspaper, 8pm until 4am. Those shifts were disorienting, as I would arrive home at 5am and be lethargic the next day, but my disability also meant my family was significantly affected. The hours were too anti-social for my agency carer, so my 65-year-old mother had to get up at 5am to put me to bed.”
Like Louise, his sleep and immune system were disrupted by irregular shift patterns, the loss of his previously vibrant social life made him feel lonely and down, while the insecurity of working casual, non-contracted shifts left him feeling on edge and unsupported.
For Lisa, the anti-social working hours made it “almost impossible to look after my health properly, or make a doctor’s appointment”, and catching up with friends and family was made difficult by their conflicting schedules.
She’s since left her job in security and found work as a cleaner, using home services app Handy (http://www.handy.com/) to book in work that’s flexible and fits around her life. “It allows me to adjust my working hours to match those of family and friends, meaning I get to enjoy their company more often. The flexibility means I get to meet a diversity of clients, and I can do as many, or as few, jobs as I want – so it’s also allowed me to make extra money,” she says.
Alex is now also working in a more regular 9 till 5 role, and says having a routine has improved his sense of purpose. But, despite the downsides, he admits there were advantages to working nights: “I’m a night owl generally, so I was more alert [than in the morning],” he says. “I’m certainly living my Saturdays to the full again though!”
For Louise, who continues to regularly work through the night, there are also certain advantages, and certain techniques she’s developed to adapt to her irregular hours. “I’m really not a morning person, so I quite like the fact I don’t have to get up at 5 in the morning all the time to go to work; I can stay up till 3 in the morning quite easily, it’s just those last four or five hours I struggle with,” she says. “So it does suit me quite well most of the time, and I do adapt to night shifts fairly well.”
Although Alice says, “top researchers in this field believe the [body] clock won’t adapt fully”, there are steps you can take to minimise the effects of your working hours. Louise relies on a combination of eye masks, considerate flatmates, sleep meditation apps, and relaxing ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos on YouTube to help her nod off, but says she still often struggles to get a full seven hours if it’s sunny or there are kids playing on the school field behind her flat.
One app that could help is Sleepio (LINK TO DIRECTORY LISTING), which was developed with leading sleep expert Professor Colin Espie, and uses tools and techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia (CBTi) to help users improve their shuteye. These include a sleep diary and scheduling tool, which can be adapted to suit night shift workers, and Sleepio also offers a helpful online guide to shift work and sleep (https://www.sleepio.com/articles/shiftwork/).
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that all the recommended techniques and sleeping schedules you’ll find are subjective – what works for you will not necessarily work for the next person, and vice versa, so the most important thing is to find a routine that works for you. If you’re struggling with the impact of working nights, why not try Less-Stress London’s eight-point action plan, provided by sleep consultant Maryanne Taylor from London-based The Sleep Works
- Keep hydrated during your shift by drinking water regularly
- Go for a short walk, and read a book or listen to music before going to sleep, as a wind down before going to bed
- Avoid caffeine or energy drinks a few hours before the end of your shift, as these stay in your system and can prevent you from getting to sleep
- Have a light meal or snack before going to bed, and avoid fatty or spicy foods which are difficult to digest
- If you’re working regular shifts, go to bed at a similar time every day after you get home
- Don’t eat or watch TV in your bedroom
- Use good blackout blinds and eye shades to darken the room as much as possible
- If it’s noisy, either from outside or the household, use earplugs and white noise to mask the background noise