4 ways to thrive when you have a grueling shift

For some, toiling away in the office from the crack of dawn or overnight can feel like the worst possible way to earn a living. Welcome to the world of early-morning and late-night shifts.

While extreme work hours can be convenient for people who need to use time during the day for other commitments, they’re not always as manageable as your classic 9 to 5. Here’s what you’ll need to do to get through it.

Get lots of sleep beforehand

Sleep should be a top priority. Especially if you have to sleep during the day for a night shift, it can be easy to shortchange your rest.

It’s not just a responsibility; it’s a matter of survival. Working rotating night shifts can be detrimental to your health, according to a 2015  a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 

The research was “based on 22 years of follow-up of 74,862 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS).”

It found that women who toiled away in rotating shifts during night hours for 5 or more years “have a modest increase in all- cause and CVD mortality,” (“CVD” meaning cardiovascular disease), and that women doing this for 15 years or more “have a modest increase in lung cancer mortality. These results add to prior evidence of a potentially detrimental effect of rotating night shift work on health and longevity.”

It also said that night shifts cause “circadian strain and is linked to the risk of several chronic diseases.”

It’s important to prepare for night shift work by scheduling strategically.

Sarah L., a nurse at a university hospital, told the National Sleep Foundation what she does to get though her 7pm-7am shift three nights per week.

“I find it most helpful to group my shifts together so that I am not flipping back and forth between day and night schedules constantly throughout the week.  If I have the time and energy, I will exercise before going into work to experience daylight and work off some stress. The day after my last night shift, I will try to ‘short sleep’ and wake up after only a few hours to make the most out of my day and get back on a normal schedule. I also try to go to bed early that night to catch up on sleep. Napping also helps out,” Sarah told the foundation.

Pack energy-boosting snacks

If you’re working from 6am to 2pm, or midnight to 8am, your appetite will be out of whack. You’ll crave sugar and rich foods that provide the false promise of keeping you awake. You might find it helpful to bring your own healthy options.

An SFGate article sheds light on the importance of eating well when working overnight in the office.

“Large night shift meals will make you sleepy and encourage additional weight gain. Eat small meals or snack repeatedly on small amounts of food during your night shift. Pack fruit or vegetable juices and protein-rich foods, such as boiled eggs, sandwiches made with turkey or chicken, or a muffin spread with cheese or peanut butter. Eat these foods early in your night shift, when they will give you needed energy. Include fruits and salads in your lunch bag. A packet of trail mix containing nuts, seeds and dried fruit, can serve as a snack,” the article says.   

Another good discipline: avoid cola or other sugary drinks even if they have caffeine. Their energy won’t sustain you, and they could hurt your health in general. Drink water with lemon or cucumber if you want a flavor kick, and seltzer if you want the bubbles.

Get comfortable and stay powered up

Working nights shifts can be lonely and it’s easy to feel isolated and unsettled. Being physically comfortable can help. Bring a blanket or a heavy sweater to battle gusts of chilly air conditioning, or dress in layers if you know your building will be very warm during your shift.

Pack a portable phone charger for travel to and from work, or if you’re sent out on an assignment where you won’t have access to an outlet.

Don’t forget those headphones! Listen to calming meditation music if your work permits.

Stay cognizant of your health

Laura McMullen wrote about how you should see a doctor if you’re having a hard time during night shifts in an article for U.S. News & World Report.

“If you’re making errors at work, falling asleep on your commute, having trouble sleeping or feeling concerned about additional health ailments, such as high blood pressure or depression, check in with your health care provider. You and your primary care provider or sleep specialist may discuss alternative methods for easing night shift work, such as prescription medicines or melatonin supplements. He or she may also look for other sleep issues, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome,” McMullen wrote.

Early and overnight shifts can be hard to manage, but there are ways to power through.