How do I get healthy sleep with a difficult, inconsistent work schedule?
March 5, 2013 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I work 50+ hours a week in a job that I love. My schedule changes daily; some days are normal 9-6, but others are 2am to "whenever." How do I get healthy sleep while coping with this schedule?

I've been working at this fantastic job for two months. About three weeks ago, I got moved to a schedule that I'm still struggling to handle. It looks like this:

Monday: 9 am to 6 pm (all end times are completely theoretical as I'm often there for another two hours)
Tuesday: off
Wednesday: off
Thursday: 9 am to 6 pm
Friday: 7 am to 4 pm
Saturday: 2 am to noon
Sunday: 2 am to noon

Tried melatonin and valerian root and they screw with my head far too much upon waking. Chamomile is ineffective. Actual drugs (benadryl, etc.) leave me stupid and drowsy in the morning.

I'm the sole producer/reporter for the Saturday and Sunday morning shows (meaning I'm on the air from 6am to 8am on Saturday and 7am to 9am on Sunday). So I'm the only person in the office when I show up at 1:30 am, and nobody else gets there until around 4am.

It's been a huge struggle not to fall asleep at my desk, since I'm usually only managing to get about four hours of sleep on Friday and Saturday nights. I always try to be in bed by 7pm at the latest, but this usually means that I'll have only two hours after getting home from work to cook dinner, try to relax, maybe talk with a friend, etc.

I've ended up lying awake in bed for hours, getting frustrated, getting up to try to do calming things, listen to music or boring podcasts ... nothing works or gets me to drop off any sooner than 10pm.

Then on Sunday nights, I crash hard from exhaustion around 4 pm and sleep until about 2 am, at which point I am wide fucking awake and have plenty of time to putter around until I get to work at 9 ... and then end up exhausted around 3 pm.

Add this to the fact that the culture of the office is very much "your schedule is meaningless" and if the work needs to be done, you're expected to stay there and complete it regardless of how much time you've already spent at the office -- since everything we do is, by its very nature, time-sensitive. It's not that I'm too slow during the day to accomplish what I need to, because everyone ends up staying this late and we are quietly shamed for leaving "on time."

Lunch hours supposedly exist but we are tacitly encouraged to take them at our desks so that we are always available to get something done.

The end result is that I end up working 10-12 hour days five days a week. I'm on salary so this is not for a monetary benefit. My schedule is going to look like this for quite a long time, as has been reinforced by my director.

My social life is suffering. The schedule change that was offered when I brought up some of my sleep issues was working all mornings ... which would put me on something a little later than "third shift," where I'd get to the office around 3 am and leave at 1 pm, to produce the 8 am and noon shows. The only thing I can see that doing is taking my limping social life and killing it dead. I haven't seen my friends in weeks since I can't hang out on normal nights. I'm supposed to have a housewarming party next week and the only night I can reasonably hold it for my own sanity is Monday or Tuesday, but no one is willing to come out to a dinner party on a Tuesday.

Enough rambling. What do?
posted by none of these will bring disaster to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You will never get healthy sleep while coping with this schedule. I don't see that you have any options but accepting that or quitting.
posted by thelonius at 11:33 AM on March 5, 2013 [11 favorites]

That is one hell of a schedule. No one would be able to live on that schedule long term and not suffer socially, physically, and mentally. I don't think you are going to find what you are looking for here, because I don't think a way to make this situation liveable exists. Your boss is being extremely unreasonable expecting this work schedule of you, and you are being extremely unreasonable expecting this of yourself.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:36 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd take the new (early but steady) schedule, plan on going to sleep as soon as you get home from work, and then go out with your friends on the later side on weekend nights (or weekdays if you can convince your friends to go out at 10pm during the week, which I sometimes can with mine). Also, you can see if your friends are free for a late lunch during their workdays and offer to meet them near their offices, which you can go to after you get off work. But in any case, your social life is already suffering, and with a consistent, albeit inconvenient, schedule, at least you won't be in danger of dying in a car accident because you were too tired to drive home from work.

(Also, if you want a little levity on the subject of working on morning shows, there's a period in seasons 4 and 5 of How I Met Your Mother in which one of the characters, Robin, is working on a 4 am morning show and tries all sorts of weird things to regulate her sleep and stay connected with her friends. Not practical advice, but it's funny and could be a stress reliever.)
posted by decathecting at 11:43 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

That's a tough one. Hopefully the current particulars of your schedule is only temporary, as this does not seem like something that you could continue for an extended period of time. Could slight modifications be made? For example, could you take Monday and Tuesday off rather than Tuesday and Wednesday? This would allow you to rest up from your night shifts a lot better.

You could also take the new but early schedule — it will allow you to adjust and normalize and perhaps not feel tired all the time.
posted by ageispolis at 11:48 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bit of a side question, but what is the turnover rate in your work? Does your director have trouble keeping people long term?

At minimum, I would accept the all morning schedule and be thankful for it. It will be WAY healthier for you, way easier to deal with, and I'll bet a lot easier to find ways to have a social life.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:54 AM on March 5, 2013

What really concerns me here are your Friday into Saturday and your Sunday into Monday.

For instance it looks like on Friday you get out of work at 4PM, and then you have to go right back on "Saturday" (AKA late Friday night) at 2A. That's a 10 hour turnaround, so assuming that you have some type of commute there is no way in hell you can possibly get enough rest to turn around and do another day's work.

Then on "Sunday" you get out at noon (which should actually be on Monday?) and fold right into your Monday 9-6 schedule, meaning that you work from 2AM Sunday to 6PM Monday -- 16 hours. Which is a pretty intense situation considering the otherwise insane schedule you're working.

Do you have a union rep or anyone who can advocate for you about the safety of your working conditions? Because weekly 10 hour turnarounds and double shifts are not safe, especially if you drive to and from work.

If there's no way you can change you schedule, and this is just the culture of your field (which I get, coming from the film industry), I would ask if it would be possible for you to sleep onsite Friday night and possibly Monday night as well. If it were me, I'd be asking for a private office with a door and a couch/futon and master keys to be able to come and go, access the break rooms, etc. as if the office were your home. I would also be asking for my Monday shift to be paid time and a half if not double time, additional compensation for the 10 hour turnaround time, and possibly some kind of compensation for having to live onsite some nights of the week.
posted by Sara C. at 12:05 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some quick answers:

- I've been told this schedule is permanent. This show is fairly new; the person who was the solo reporter/producer before me was only on this schedule for three months. Taking this schedule was my only option to move out of a part-time position into a full-time. I've worked third shift before so I figured this wouldn't be too different. More fool me.

- There's quite a bit of turnover -- most people work at this station only one or two years before applying elsewhere and moving to a bigger market, since this is a very well-respected operation in a mid-size market. I'd like to do the same and use this as a stepping stone ... but a year on this schedule feels like a very long time.

- Exercise is impossible on this schedule. Can I find some way to make it possible?

- I really feel like taking the morning schedule would torpedo my life outside of work. I'd need to be asleep at 8pm, and since most people I know get out of work around 5 or 6, I just feel like I'd never see my friends. I'd also never see my boyfriend, who my relationship with is only just beginning (four weeks in). Is moving to that schedule the best option under those circumstances? I'm only 24 and I feel like I'll miss out on normal twenties social things.

Thanks for all your help; I'm going out now and will resume not thread-sitting. Thank you!
posted by none of these will bring disaster at 12:07 PM on March 5, 2013

Is moving to that schedule the best option under those circumstances?

I still think it would be better. If you want to make this position be a stepping stone for more work you need to stick it out. You will NOT be able to stick it out on the current schedule. you just won't. You will burn out faster than you would believe. Taking the earlier schedule would increase your odds of physically and mentally being able to last long enough to use this job as a stepping stone. It will be much much easier on your body. And with a regular schedule you would be able to join a gym (maybe a 24 hour one?) and work out at regular times. You're right, though, that the schedule they are offering will probably make socializing really hard, but it isn't like your current situation is letting you do any socializing now. You said you haven't seen your friends for weeks....

You're stuck in a rock and a hard place situation. You are being forced to choose whether you think your career, heath, or social life is more important. I'm sorry but it doesn't sound like there is a way to have it all. Some of them are going to be taking a hit no matter what you choose at this point. You just have to choose which.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:23 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Exercise is impossible on this schedule. Can I find some way to make it possible?

Finish work, work out. Immediately. Find the nearest gym to your office and ask your boss to pay for a membership. Explain to him or her that you'll be a much better employee if you're healthy. As soon as your show/shift is over, you run over to the gym and do your thing, then you go home. Make those five days light, and really do the hard workouts on your "weekend" days.

I really feel like taking the morning schedule would torpedo my life outside of work.

You don't have to go to work right after you wake up. I spent nearly two years on a work-sleep-play rotation because I was on (nearly) graveyard shift, and it worked out pretty well -- I was energized to play, and it gave me an excuse not to stay too late at work: "Sorry, but I'm falling asleep."

(Note that my two suggestions are incompatible with each other -- if you're on a work-sleep-play rotation, you kinda have to go straight from work to sleep.)
posted by Etrigan at 12:24 PM on March 5, 2013

On the all-morning schedule you have the option of investing in blackout curtains and sleeping from 1pm-9pm or so, then get up and socialize with friends before you go to work. It will still suck because our bodies aren't made to sleep during the day, but it will be WAY better than trying to change sleep shifts twice a week.
posted by muddgirl at 12:25 PM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

But if you do want to stick with this schedule, I would demand Mondays and Fridays off, rather than Tues and Wed.
posted by muddgirl at 12:26 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a mentor give me this advice when in a tough Work situation for similar but not identical reasons: suck it up for a year, accept that you will have no social life, and then do everything you can to get the heck out of there because you will have proved yourself marketable.

On exercising, either first thing when you wake up or right after work. It sucks but the only way it works is if you make it a priority.
posted by eleanna at 12:30 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'd need to be asleep at 8pm, and since most people I know get out of work around 5 or 6, I just feel like I'd never see my friends.

I don't know the specifics of your friend group/social culture, but for me this would mean lots of meeting friends for happy hour.
posted by misskaz at 12:30 PM on March 5, 2013

Best answer: I really feel like taking the morning schedule would torpedo my life outside of work.

That's pretty much just the deal, I'm afraid. When I worked on a morning news show I rarely saw y friends and missed a lot of concerts, birthday parties etc. On the flip side I got to do a lot of neat stuff during the day, but that's because I was living in NYC at the time. I regular Sunday brunch (after work for me) was a huge social outlet and I was really unhappy when ocassionally it didn't happen for whatever reason. One of my friends I made during that time later said, she never knew how funny I was until I left that job and she saw me when I was rested.
posted by Jahaza at 12:41 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm on a somewhat similar schedule, and it is a killer. Try to take it one day at a time, focusing on getting whatever sleep you can and not on how little sleep you're getting overall. A year will pass faster than you'd think, and then you can find yourself a better situation. (Maybe it won't even take a year. Keep your eyes open.)

Don't exercise after work. It will get your energy up for a few hours, and that's not what you want if you're going to be going to bed soon. Exercise before work, or on your lunch hour. If your boss gives you grief about taking a lunch hour, give him some push back. Does he want his reporter/producers to be out of shape? As much as you give to your job, you need a little bit of actual life for yourself. Work hard enough in other areas, and hopefully he'll get over his anti-lunch crap.

Talking it over with other people who work alternating day and night shifts, we all have a hard time going home and straight to bed at 8 AM. There's some weird thing that compels us to stay up for an hour or two, even if that's not a good idea. Our bodies seem to demand that time, to wind down and relax. There is nothing natural about any of this, all we can do is minimize the damage of being on this crazy, disruptive schedule.

Be grateful you're doing this at 24, instead of later in life. Being short of sleep at 24 was a freakin' breeze, compared to now!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:01 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Take the 3am-1pm shift and turn it into a "second shift" job.

That is, go home immediately after work and sleep, say from 2-10, and then on friday/saturday nights you'll be available to go out to the bar and such, and on your days off you'll be available for lunch or brunch with friends as well as earlier evening activities if you go to bed early (say, 11-7pm).
posted by zug at 1:02 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

zug has the right idea here, and i really think there's no way this is doable constantly swinging around like that.

you will be a lot more miserable if you keep the rotating shifts than if you pick the morning shift and just deal with it.

there's also something else here that no one has really mentioned. if you choose a steady schedule, i bet it will make a *big* difference in people expecting you to constantly work extra time or be available at odd times. there's something about not having a consistent schedule that seems to make both management, and coworkers think "oh, they're just here whenever we need them, and leave whenever it's done no matter how long that takes"

if you make a point of picking a consistent daily schedule i feel like that will change.

i've also had several friends who worked similar hours doing security or other odd hours jobs. you will find a way around it. you'll also have way more energy being on a fixed schedule.

i say take the fixed schedule and give it a month or two. i bet your time will be treated with more respect, and if you do it like zug says, you'll still have plenty of time for friends and a boyfriend after you get out of bed at 7pm or so.

i could also grumble on about jobs that expect you to work ridiculous rotating shifts like that, but that doesn't really answer the question. i definitely wouldn't stick around at a place where they were like "everyone does it, suck it up" for more than a year/longer than i had to though.
posted by emptythought at 1:15 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Take the other shift so at least you have regular-ish hours. Sleep from 3-7, have a few hours of a life during the evening when normal people are awake, sleep again from 11-2, get up and go to work. That gives you seven hours of sleep most days with a few waking hours in between.

My mother worked 2nd or 3rd shift the whole time I was growing up, and I don't think she ever slept a straight 7-8 hours at a stretch. She always caught a few hours here and a few hours there.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:16 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have done what the Serene Empress Dork suggested way back when I worked third shift. It's not ideal but it's doable.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:05 PM on March 5, 2013

Have you looked into Nuvigil? One of the indications is for shift work sleep disorders. I've taken it for jet lag and shift work. You will still have to deal with the sleep deficit, but you can do it on your own terms. It only took me one dose to figure out that I should cut the dose in half for my biology, but it really helped me when I was dealing with similar issues.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:20 PM on March 5, 2013

Response by poster: I just wanted to give people a quick update:

I took the early shift and I'm attempting to live on the schedule suggested by Serene Empress Dork. I've slept through the first part of my shift twice so far ... so this is not really working out yet. I'm getting very little sleep since I tend to wake up in fits of anxiety through the "night." I also live next door to a park and I've had to invest in a (rather expensive) noise machine to block out the thock-thock-thock of tennis balls and basketballs all day long.

I'm digging my nails in and hoping I get moved to a regular shift soon.

Thank you all for the advice.
posted by none of these will bring disaster at 6:58 AM on April 18, 2013

Thanks for the update! Good luck.
posted by Jahaza at 11:37 AM on April 18, 2013

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