The midnight shift. Dogwatch. Graveyard. The dark side.
Whatever you choose to call it, it sure is a different way of life for those of us who work it. I have been on nights going on my 13th year this month and I always say it’s normal.
Working nights interferes with our body make up. Humans are diurnal and not meant to stay up at night while sleeping during the day. Working against our circadian clock can take a toll on us. This is the body clock that essentially controls our glands which release hormones and also controls our mood, alertness, body temperature and our body’s daily cycle. Because of this those who work graveyards can suffer from sleep disorders and for some, constant exhaustion becomes a lifestyle.
I know I am super tired when I am doing a security check in the middle of the night and I am jealous of the inmates curled up in their cold stone beds. How could I be jealous of a criminal locked up in a yucky, used bed with thin blankets? It’s these nights I know I must recharge my batteries.
Unfortunately the night shift lifestyle can be harmful to your well-being. It can worsen your moods, decrease your reflexes to respond to split-second decisions, and make you more vulnerable to disease.
Here are some helpful sleeping and health tips for the graveyard person:
- Eat well and exercise. The body’s digestive system slows down and does not easily digest heavy foods during the night. The best eating should be done with a first meal within the first hour of waking up. It is best to eat 5-6 small meals a day several hours apart. Diet and exercise could help prevent diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
- Get enough sleep. The brain can be tricked into thinking it is time to go to sleep if your bedroom is dark with blackout shades. An eye mask allows the ultimate darkness. And keep a pair of earplugs in the nightstand for when that darn gardener decides to weed whack and mow in the middle of your night, or for that neighbor’s dog that will not stop barking. Drive home wearing sunglasses to reduce exposure to light.
- Try to keep working schedule stable. Consistency is key. It’s recommended to find a routine and match your off days to your work days as much as possible. Although working during the daytime may not be an option, rotating shifts are harder on the body. You will be better off with a consistent routine.
- See your doctor for closer monitoring. It’s a good idea to monitor that health risks are not impacting you in irreversible ways. Also, lack of exposure to the sun can cause deficiencies. I recommend blood work and checkup be done – mine revealed I was low in Vitamin B and D.
- Nap before work. Since it may be hard to sleep consistently for hours, splitting your sleep can help to make things less dangerous at work or with commute drives.
- Refrain from caffeine. Although it is tempting to have a cup of coffee or caffeinated soda when you need that boost of energy, your sleep quality is at risk. Your deepest stages of sleep are affected and you are not fully rested. Drink water when you are feeling sleepy.
- Change lights at home. Besides using black out curtains to reduce day light, you may think about getting low-wattage light bulbs, maybe even a red one. This will decrease the output of light when making that midnight bathroom call so your sleep cycle is not bothered by the brightness.
- Keep electronics out of the bedroom. It can be tempting to reach for the smart phone, tablet or laptop to check your email, Facebook or text messages (or in my case Pinterest). This is fun stuff to do when you cannot sleep but the blue light that radiates is keeping you awake. Television included!
Next time you are dealing with that difficult coworker on a 12-hour shift, just remember their crankiness and unreasonable perspective could be caused by their circadian clock being off a few minutes or maybe even hours. It is not pleasant to accept that this shift can create negativity in your encounters or even worse being treated negatively for no apparent reason.
In our jobs we tend to think we are invincible and will manage, but our body does not always keep up with our mindset. In law enforcement, we are family and your well-being is important. And as correctional officers and first responders, with our intelligence, specialized knowledge, not to mention our charm, the community and residents rely on us too.