June 21, 2011
Night shift workers: What's your sleep strategy?
A recent NWjobs article and another on MSNBC gave a glimpse into the lives of people who prefer to work the night shift. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 3 percent of the country's full-time workforce pulls the graveyard shift. Another 5 percent work an evening shift.
[Flickr photo by Brad.K]
Among the perks: better pay, fewer meetings, no rush-hour commute, and most important, your days free to attend school, grow a fledgling business, or care for your kids while your partner works (thus saving a bundle in childcare costs).
Much has been written lately about air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job during the night shift. Likewise, it's easy to find web accounts of the many ways night shift workers cheat sleep on the job (coffee and jumping jacks, anyone?). What I've seen less of are best practices for ensuring your night shift gig doesn't completely mess with your sleep schedule, both during the workweek and during time off.
A recent Vanderbilt University study of the sleep strategies of nurses who work the night shift found that 25 percent of them will forego sleep for up to a day to adjust to their next night on the job.
Many hospital nurses work 12-hour shifts three times a week, followed by a couple or several days off. As a result, many alternate between two different sleep schedules: the standard nighttime sleep schedule that most of us keep, and the daytime sleep schedule that folks working a five-day-a-week graveyard shift keep. As any seasoned night duty nurse will tell you, transitioning from one sleep schedule to the other can be rough, especially if you're doing so several times a month.
According to Vanderbilt researchers, staying up for 24 hours to prepare for your next night shift is the least productive sleep strategy. Nurses in this study who did so reported feeling less adjusted to their sleep schedule, had a harder time getting out of bed, consumed more caffeine, and were more likely to fall asleep during the day when off work.
Instead, Vanderbilt researchers listed sleeping in late the morning before your first night shift (practiced by almost half the 400 nurses polled) and sticking to a daytime sleep schedule all week long (practiced by very few of the nurses polled) as more effective sleep strategies.
But on-the-job effectiveness isn't the only thing at stake for those who significantly alter their sleep patterns each week. Their health may be, too. As Vanderbilt researchers note:
A number of previous studies have found that repeated incidence of circadian misalignment -- the condition that occurs when individuals' sleep/wake patterns are out of sync with their biological clocks -- is not healthy. Jet lag is the most familiar example of this condition. Circadian misalignment has been associated with increased risk of developing cardiovascular, metabolic and gastrointestinal disorders, some types of cancer, and several mental disorders.
Night shift workers, what say you? When it comes to sleeping, how you do adjust between your days on and days off work? Do you sleep through the daylight hours on weekends and your other days off, too? Or do you slightly alter your sleep pattern during your time off work?
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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