Working night shift - for 2 weeks. Any advice?
January 23, 2023 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Dear night shift experts, I'm in a situation where in April I need to work the night shift for 2 consecutive weeks: 10pm-7am, Tue-Sat. My spouse and kids are not thrilled. Fortunately I have the option to expense a hotel next to the office (40 mins away) for those 2 weeks. And then I have to go back to normal hours immediately. I've never worked the night shift before. Any do's / don'ts? What waking hours should I keep? Should I bother trying to see my family? (There's no school one of those weeks.) What should I do for that weekend in between?

Some more details:

The work is strictly desk based, but with lots of phone and video calls - potentially the entire shift - and not physical, so safety shouldn't be at stake. My normal waking hours are 630am-1130pm. I don't really have a choice to say no to this.
posted by Mushroom12345 to Health & Fitness (22 answers total)
Do not eat before you go to bed. It makes waking up harder.
posted by aniola at 9:51 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Time your caffeine intake- I was talking to someone who does overnights sometimes and doesn't like to drink caffeine, but she would get too close to the end and think "no I really need something" and then be buzzing when she was trying to sleep. So she drinks an energy drink around mid way through.
posted by freethefeet at 10:19 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Make sure you have earplugs or something, because people will be noisy in the hotel hallways, the groundskeeping staff will be mowing the lawn right outside your window, etc. etc.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:35 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

I mean, you can totally see your family! My husband works a few stretches of night shifts most months and it definitely feels like he has less leisure time when he’s on nights (even if the actual working/commuting hours are the same as when he’s on days), but we still see him, and he works 12 hour shifts. You could have a late dinner with your family after you wake up and before work, or hang out with them on weekend/no school mornings after your work day is over, depending on your family’s normal routine.

Whether you use the hotel or sleep at home depends a lot on how your house is set up and how noisy your family is, and how well you sleep. Definitely nice to have the option, though, especially for the first couple of days when you’re getting used to it. Get a sleep mask and ear plugs!
posted by MadamM at 10:46 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Can you invite your family over for school vacation?

The hotel is a fun adventure for the kids (even if you're all crowded in), and your spouse isn't left to do all the parenting for two weeks straight. The family can go out for a lot of the time while you're sleeping and observe strict quiet hours. And like Blue Jello Elf said, earplugs or something.
posted by aniola at 10:48 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

Oh and if possible try not to drive for those two weeks. Impaired driving is a thing.
posted by aniola at 10:50 PM on January 23

Think of it as jet lag. It takes a day to adjust for every hour that is displaced. By the second week you will be fine.

Be gentle with yourself on the first week - esp the first day.

And the first week returning to normal will also have challenges. Be kind to yourself. And yes, take advantage of the hotel stay.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:53 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ear plugs and white noise machine to help you sleep. I use Alexa for my white noise but I understand if people have privacy concerns. It will be loud, people will be moving around in the day time.

Use the hotel. Put a do not disturb sign outside the door.

Avoid morning light (wear sunglasses) and try to get afternoon light to shift your clock later.

Or you can do it the other way around — sleep earlier, and wake ip *really* early at 10pm.
posted by moiraine at 12:49 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I worked overnights for a year. No matter your sleep schedule on days off the hardest time during the graveyard shift is around 5-7AM. I would lock myself in the bathroom and snooze on the floor.
posted by bendy at 1:07 AM on January 24

Best answer: You'll probably be fine ... your spouse may be less happy =)

My job doesn't have a regular night shift, but I occasionally do field work, when my "shift" is usually overnight. It's not so bad for a short time. Here's what I'd do if I were you:

1) Ditch caffeine. If you have time, start weaning yourself off now. I dearly love coffee, but having a caffeine habit makes switching my hours so much harder, so I'm decaf-only nowadays.

2) I'd plan to sleep 0800-1600, then spend afternoon + early evening with your family. Being around 5pm - 9pm isn't that different from what your kids are used to if you work normal office hours.

3) Take advantage of the hotel -- I don't know your family, but I assume kiddos won't be good about leaving you alone + staying quiet while you're sleeping.

4) weekend-long trans-Atlantic trips SUCK, which is what it would be like trying to shift your schedule just for a weekend. I'd keep your shifted schedule, taking the kids for the afternoon/evening (or hanging out as a family -- I think it should be your spouse's call whether they want the time totally off or as family time).

5) I find it hard to fall asleep early, so I'd probably work a VERY LONG first day, going to bed at 0800 rather than midnight. If you're like me, you won't have any trouble sleeping a full 8 hours at that point, and will wake up happily on your new schedule.

6) Flipping schedules the other direction at the end of the 2 weeks would be harder for me. I'd probably try to stay awake a while after getting off work at 0700 on the last day, then sleep for as long as my body lets me (maybe noon-midnight), then stay awake for ~20+ hours to go to bed at a normal-ish (if early) time. This 2nd weekend will probably be harder on your spouse than the first, because you'll have a full daylight day where you're either a zombie or asleep.
posted by Metasyntactic at 2:08 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I used to do nights regularly, about 1 week of nights (Sun-Fri morning) every 6-7 weeks or so. About half those times, I would also be on a 28 hour shift the following Saturday-Sunday. Metasyntactic is right that the flip days (or in my experience, the 2nd day after the flip) are the hardest.

Things that helped me:
- Going into a week of nights, I would stay up as late as I could on Saturday night, sleep until noon or so on Sunday
- Blackout curtains during the day
- Usual get-ready-for-work routine (shower, coffee, pack a lunch*, etc)
- Planning something for Friday afternoon at the end of nights; I'd go home and take a 5-6 hr nap, then get up again
- Being active at work. This was easy for me, I spent most of the night running around. If you are doing a desk job, do stretches, run in place, etc.

Depending on how old your kids are, they may/may not be able to leave you alone during the day to sleep. If this might be an issue, definitely get the hotel. In any case, driving 40 min each way after a night shift is not a great idea. (Source: have fallen asleep behind the wheel after nights.) Personally I would find 2 weeks alone in a hotel to be claustrophobic, but can you expense the cost of car service instead so you can sleep in your own bed/eat your own food.

* Packing a lunch is overlooked but critical! Otherwise you wind up eating something horrible and greasy around 3am (because the only places that are open at 3am are horrible and greasy), and then at 4am you can't decide if you are nauseated, overtired, or both. My nights got measurably better when I started packing a PBJ.
posted by basalganglia at 3:33 AM on January 24 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm the kind of doctor who has to work nights fairly frequently, sometimes for weeks at a time, so these are fairly well-tested strategies.

My number one piece of advice: do not catastrophize. This is two weeks of your life. In residency we used to say "you can do anything for two weeks" and that's generally proven true for me. It might not be fun, you might feel tired for two weeks, you might even not do as good of a job as you want to, but you'll make it through.

Practical stuff:
-If you haven't used melatonin before, start experimenting with it. For inducing drowsiness/sleepiness, low doses are best. I take either 0.5 mg or 1 mg about an hour before I want to be asleep (for my night shift schedule, that's right around when I get home) and that helps me fall asleep in the morning effortlessly.

-Blackout curtains +/- eye mask. Again, you have some time to experiment with these and find a light-blocking system that works for you. I can't keep eye masks on my face while sleeping so I needed blackout curtains in my bedroom.

-Just to state the obvious: if you are a caffeine consumer, shift your caffeine consumption to start in the afternoon when you wake up and stop around midnight.

-Since you've never worked the night shift before, you might be surprised to experience the 3-4 AM crash -- most people actually feel kinda OK for most of the night, but around 3-4 AM you will start to feel very sleepy and, oddly, extremely cold. Definitely wear/pack layers and consider bringing a big scarf/throw blanket or even a heating pad, as well as a non-caffeinated hot drink situation (decaf tea, or even just hot water to sip).

-I used to have one "day" (night) off at a time so I always stayed on the night schedule, but it was tough, and I think with both a family to catch up with and two days off in a row it will be nearly impossible to stay on your night schedule for the weekend. If I were you, my plan would be to maximize family time and sleep as much as possible, regardless of what time it occurs (stay up late but sleep at night if you feel inclined, nap during the day, etc).

-Staying in a hotel: yes in order to avoid a driving commute that may be less safe due to your sleep deprivation/shifted schedule. Yes in order to avoid trying to sleep during the day while your kids are at home being active/making noise. Otherwise not necessary.
posted by telegraph at 3:44 AM on January 24 [9 favorites]

You should aim to wake up about 1 hr before starting work. The day before starting this shift pattern try to split the difference between your current wake time and the new one, so for you around 2-3pm.

Should I bother trying to see my family?
If you are sleeping 1pm to 9pm then you have 7am-1pm for family time but at the cost of having to commute.

At the end of the 2 weeks it is always easier to push sleep time out than bring it forward, so sleep from 5pm to 1am for 1 day and then go back to your normal pattern.
posted by Lanark at 4:16 AM on January 24

I did night shift for about 15 years.

I would sleep during the day (all my people were at work/school) get up in the afternoon, and then go to work.

Common schedule (Sunday - Thursday)
10 am to 5 pm - sleep
5 pm - 10 pm - be with family
10 pm - 8am - commute/work/commute

I did not flip back and forth between postures. If I had days off I would stay night oriented.

You are only doing 2 weeks, so maybe my arrangement wouldn’t be right for you, but I figured I would mention it.

I have always felt night shift was easier than second - the period I worked second shift, I never saw my family.
posted by kabong the wiser at 5:18 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Thinking about it, for a short stint, Lanark’s reply might be better.
posted by kabong the wiser at 5:20 AM on January 24

Best answer: I worked nights for three or four months, and while everyone else has the basics, the thing that helped me the most was getting up and walking during every break - I did laps around the building. It helped more than anything else in keeping me alert. (This was also a desk job.) If you can't walk outside, then walk inside, or climb stairs, or something - it will help.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:42 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding using melatonin to shift your schedule. I use a much higher dose (whatever the highest single pill dose offered at the drug store is, I think 10mg) 8.5 hours before i want to wake up. Leaving any less than the 8.5 hours between dosing and wake time leaves me feeling like a zombie during the deficit period.
posted by Mitheral at 8:38 AM on January 24

Former 12 hour nights (6 PM to 6 AM) worker here. For me, these were the major things.

1. Get blackout curtains or a light-blocking eye mask. Morning light streaming into your bedroom is not a recipe for good sleep. I have blackout curtains from Target and this Manta Sleep mask, which has a customizable fit and doesn't rub my eyelids. You might also want earplugs. I like the ones from Loop; they're more expensive than the disposable ones, but they're also much more comfortable. They have models with a range of sound reduction. Some will block out background noise while allowing you to hear important things, such as a smoke detector.

2. It will be tempting to switch your schedule on your days off in order to be awake during the day. Resist the urge! It's way, way easier to adjust if you stick with the sleeping schedule you adopt for work days. Yes, it's inconvenient. Yes, you'll probably feel like you never see your partner and kids. However, for me, it was absolutely crucial to not feeling like shit all the time. Try to remind yourself (and your family) that it's only temporary and it's vital for your health.

3. Eat well and do what you can to treat your body well. Night shift can be brutal from a physiological standpoint. Consider preparing a few days' worth of healthy meals so you can eat decent food with relatively little effort. Pack your work lunch for the next day as soon as you get home in the morning. I liked having some high-protein, high-fat meal replacement shakes on hand for after work, too. They're easy and digestible so you don't feel gross right before bed.

4. Turn your phone off or silence non-emergency notifications. For some reason, people in my life had a really hard time comprehending that being home all day didn't mean I was sitting around eagerly waiting to run errands, do favors, hang out, or just shoot the shit. Finally, I turned notifications off for my own sanity.

5. This may not be an issue because you'll only be on nights for a short time, but try not to schedule appointments or anything important for first thing in the morning after a shift. I know it seems like a good idea from afar, but I missed more 7 AM appointments than I care to think about. For me, part of the issue was working a physical job for 12 hours; I'd reliably get 30,000 or 40,000 steps every night, and I was inevitably just so bone-weary by the end that all I wanted to do was go home, take a shower, and go to bed. Maybe if your job is less physically demanding or your shifts are shorter, it would be doable.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 9:41 AM on January 24

I used to work occasional overnights, always with very little notice because I was covering call-outs from regular night shift people. Phone and video calls are a good thing in your case, because it will keep your brain and body engaged which will help keep you awake.

Bring layers; as the end of the shift came along, I would get really cold. I would also start to feel sort of sniffly and generally not-well. I've learned this is just my body deciding it's done and wants to lay down.

Don't try to fall asleep immediately when you get home/to hotel. Take a couple of hours to wind down and do what would normally be your "evening" routine. I would usually get home around 8, toodle around until about 10, then sleep from 10 or 11 through the afternoon.

Good luck! It's totally do-able, and for me at least I was still able to see my famiy/friends/dog in the afternoons and early evening, more or less how I would if I were working a day shift.
posted by assenav at 9:41 AM on January 24

Explain to your spouse and children that you are making a sacrifice FOR YOUR FAMILY, and that you are the least-thrilled of them all. They should be making you feel better, not worse. Having said that, a weekend at the hotel with a fun pool and dinner out might be a nice break for you all. Good luck.
posted by cyndigo at 2:38 PM on January 25

I have worked nights since 1994:
Everyone has pretty much given you the best pointers so far, my only addition would be to try to keep similar hours on your days off, then it will not be so bad when you have to go back to work.
posted by oldnumberseven at 11:39 PM on January 25

If you don't want to spend money on blackout curtains then aluminum foil can be taped over windows instead (use goo-be-gone to remove any tape residue after). Hotel curtains are probably good enough but if you stay at home then yours might not be.
posted by meepmeow at 10:06 AM on January 27

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