On the downside, the third shift can really do a number on the body. A weakened immune system, insomnia, indigestion, heart disease, weight gain and diabetes have all been linked to shift work. Going against the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythms, can also lead to shift work disorder. Because the body’s clock is controlled by a part of the brain influenced by light, working by night and sleeping by day can throw your body out of whack.
Meritus Health nurses Jim Recabo and Jennifer Edwards stay healthy, fit and sane despite working the third shift. Here’s how they do it:
- Pack a lunchbox full of protein such as turkey or tuna sandwiches, boiled eggs and string cheese. Although common, don’t associate the graveyard shift with meals from vending machines and fast food joints.
- Don’t eat a huge meal just before your shift ends.
- Eat complex carbs, as they release energy slowly.
- Avoid caffeine before bedtime and drink it in moderation throughout your shift.
- Fill up on water to reduce fatigue caused by dehydration.
- Block out light in your bedroom.
- Wear sunglasses while driving home from work to reduce your exposure to sunlight.
- Take a short nap before your shift. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a short nap yields more brain benefit than a nap lasting 30-minutes or longer, which can cause grogginess.
- Keep to the same bedtime ritual and schedule.
- Use earplugs and eyeshades to block out noise and light.
Jennifer admits that she logs in four hours of sleep each day. With a 12 year-old son and 15 year-old daughter, Jennifer is always on the go. The 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift gives Jennifer time to help her son, who has ADHD, remain focused on his nightly homework. Her typical schedule is: sleep when she gets home, bring her daughter’s softball bag to school by 2:30, do after-school homework with her son, attend a softball game or practice, eat a family dinner, take a 20-minute nap and head to work. “I’m a big believer in 20-minute naps,” explains Jennifer. She’s been known to catnap in her car while her daughter is on the softball field.
To transition from a night to a day schedule, Jim grabs three hours of sleep after his night shift ends and wakes up to a planned agenda. At the end of the day, Jim goes to bed when his family does so that he switches to their schedule for his days off work.
- Get some exercise during work breaks to boost alertness. Take the stairs, squeeze in a power walk or perform jumping jacks in the break room.
- Exercise before your shift to increase your energy level.
- Schedule workouts on your days off.
While it may rev up some people, Jim heads to the gym right after work. “If I don’t exercise first thing, it won’t happen,” says Jim.
Family and social time
Don’t be a hermit. Jim tends to socialize with other health care workers and night shift workers who understand his lifestyle.
Get your family and friends on the same page. “You really have to adjust everyone’s expectations,” says Jim. His family and friends know not to call during the day. “They’re used to me disappearing and taking naps on my days off.”
Quality time with her family fuels Jennifer forward. “This shift allows me to spend weekends with my family, help my son with his homework and never miss my daughter’s softball games.”
Watching your schedule
Between commuting and family responsibilities, shift workers have very little opportunity to rest between shifts. That’s why it’s important to manage your schedule. “I keep a meticulous schedule,” admits Jim. He pays close attention to his four-weeks-in-advance schedule, making sure he has more than one day off in between night shifts. “Otherwise you’re either short-changing yourself on sleep or you’re not accomplishing basic things like seeing your kids, grocery shopping, housekeeping and paying bills.”
For Jim and Jennifer, shift work has helped them maintain a work-life balance and create lasting friendships along the way. “I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my co-workers,” admits Jennifer. “We pick each other up.”
By: Anne Gill