A typical workday isn’t so typical for Scott Repasky, a security guard who knows firsthand the struggles of working the night shift. “I work weekends and I’m on 12-hour shifts. My sleep schedule is all over the place,” he explains.

Repasky is one of 21 million Americans who regularly work shifts outside daytime hours—most of them between the hours of 6:00 PM and 7:00 AM.

While these types of shifts are found in a wide variety of industries—including hospitality, healthcare, and manufacturing—they all share a unique set of hardships. “Working nights can be less stressful. The pace is slower and you deal with fewer people which are good things,” Repasky says. “But in my experience, people who work the night shift are lonely, depressed, and sleepy.”

Exacerbating those problems is that shift work is more than twice as likely to be part-time meaning people who work nights are often trying to accommodate school schedules, another job, or family arrangements.

While shift work sometimes comes with extra pay (usually the case in nursing and other healthcare professions), according to the US Department of Labor, a premium is not required and is up to each employer. The fact is, the vast majority of night workers receive lower earnings on average compared to daytime workers, and only around 7% of shift workers cite better pay as their main reason for working odd hours.

Julia Lemberskiy, a former Uber exec, says she has witnessed the day-to-day toll that shift work can take on workers and their families. Lemberskiy ran operations at the ride-sharing company’s staffing division, Uber Works, until COVID-19-related cuts closed the platform in May 2020.

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In focus groups and worker feedback sessions, Lemberskiy says she observed many shift workers struggling with financial concerns. “A majority of our shift workers were working irregular hours, for minimal wages so there were monetary concerns that also impacted their ability to work,” she says adding few owned cars and often struggled to pay for the cost of taking public transportation to work.

Many shift workers are single parents or caregivers trying to juggle last-minute scheduling (common in shift work) with personal responsibilities. While Uber Works was proactive in addressing these issues, Lemberskiy says at most staffing agencies, “workers’ needs and mental health take a back seat.”

Can Shift Work Spur Depression?

Research suggests that shift workers may be as much as 33% more likely to have depression than those working a regular daytime schedule. The explanation behind this somber statistic is unknown, but it may have something to do with disrupted sleep.

Michael Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, says that shift workers can present with a range of sleep disorders from insomnia to circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders.

Why does this happen? Since shift workers get most of their sleep during the day, their sleep runs against the body’s 24-hour clock—also known as the circadian rhythm. This internal clock responds to indications of light and dark and sends out signals that keep us awake during the day and asleep at night.

A night worker’s circadian rhythm is in conflict with the sun’s light/dark schedule, and evidence suggests that if this rhythm doesn’t adjust properly, their day sleep gets continually disrupted by signals of wakefulness. This leaves night workers with fewer hours of sleep, causing them to wake up feeling fatigued instead of well-rested.

If that doesn’t sound tough enough there’s mounting evidence that sleep disturbance is linked to depression. This study suggests approximately 75% of depressed patients present with insomnia symptoms. People who miss out on sleep risk getting trapped in a vicious cycle, where their poor sleep contributes to their depressive thoughts and their depressive thoughts worsen their sleep.

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Grandner reflects on his own team’s research, which uncovered a striking link between being awake at night and an increased risk of suicide. “The fact that shift workers are repeatedly exposed to being awake during the biological night is certainly something to be concerned about,”  Grandner says, noting that this effect is yet to be explored among shift workers.

5 Coping Strategies for Working the Night Shift

Night shift work comes with more than its fair share of challenges but there are measures you can take to alleviate the mental burden of shift work. Here’s what you can do.

#1. Prioritize Your Sleep

The connection between sleep and mental health may seem obvious but the importance of receiving enough rest can’t be overstated. Sleep restores and repairs the body in all kinds of ways, and data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that anything less than the recommended 7 hours of sleep a night is linked to a number of health risks—including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and depression. And if you feel like you’re functioning on a short-fuse, it could be because your lack of sleep is contributing to patterns of negative thinking and anger.

For night workers, sleeping during the day is the name of the game. Here are some expert tips to improve your daytime sleep.

  • Protect your sleep. Grandner says that blocking out light, noise, and other interruptions are especially important for shift workers. Signals of daylight can trigger your body into wakefulness, so blackout curtains could be your new best friend. Light from inside your room can also disturb sleep by suppressing melatonin, so wear a sleep mask or remove electronics from your bedroom to prevent any brightness from disturbing your sleep. Since blue light is the most disruptive for sleep, it’s a good idea to stay away from your cell phone, laptop, or TV screen in the few hours before sleep—or, consider trying a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses.
  • If you can’t sleep, get up. While this may sound counterintuitive at first, Grandner explains that it is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). Based on the principles of traditional CBT, CBT-I focuses on addressing the thoughts and behaviors that are preventing sleep and replacing them with new, positive habits. Staying in bed when you’re not sleeping is an example of a poor sleeping habit. When you do this, your brain begins to associate your bed with wakefulness and unrest. A better habit? Instead of tossing and turning, get up and do something for half an hour or so. When you feel yourself getting sleepy, get back in bed and try again.
  • Stick to a routine. Having a sleep routine helps your circadian rhythm adjust to your atypical sleeping hours. Research suggests it’s best to avoid caffeine in the 6 hours before bedtime, and that a 10-minute nap during break time can be effective in reducing sleepiness and waking up your brain.
  • Consult a sleep specialist. If lack of sleep is impacting your life, Grandner recommends searching online for a sleep specialist, preferably one who practices CBT-I. (Note: CBT-I can be effectively conducted via telehealth, as noted in this review of several studies.)
  • Try an app. Developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Insomnia Coach is a mobile app that helps you track your sleeping patterns and improve your sleep habits.

#2. Schedule Time with Friends

Having an offbeat schedule can throw you out of sync with your family and friends, causing you to miss out on social events and even day to day communications. This means that you’ll have to do a little more planning to stay connected with loved ones.

Grandner suggests working together with loved ones to schedule moments when both parties share free time. When your calendars simply don’t align, he recommends planning out “asynchronous communications”, such as sending out a text message for a sleeping friend to wake up to.

As a night worker, Repasky found a way to match his time off with those around him. “The best rhythm I’ve found is to sleep when I get home from work in the morning, then be socially active in the evenings, then go to work again.” This way, his schedule falls in line with day workers, except that work and sleep are flipped.

On a positive note, night shifts tend to be quieter and less occupied (hence the eerie nickname—‘the graveyard shift’). This intimacy may help you forge a tighter bond with your coworkers.

#3. Set Clear Expectations for Your Friends and Family

Don’t be shy when it comes to letting your social circle know about your sleep/work schedule. Shout it from the rooftops if you have to.

The balancing act between work, sleep, and family life can be especially hard for women with children, says Nicole Arzt, LCMFT, who serves on the advisory board for Family Enthusiast. These parents, she says, work at night, sleep a few hours in the morning, and then get caught spending the day looking after the kids or running errands. “It’s really important to prioritize your sleep,” Arzt stresses. “Set boundaries around it. Let people know to not disturb you between certain hours.”

Grandner recommends having a planned conversation with your loved ones. “This conversation can help people figure out how to live up to their values and expectations while also navigating the realities of their work schedule,” Grandner says. A family meeting can open the floor for you to let family members know that your sleep is valuable and that there are things they can do to help you. Teenagers can keep the noise down by wearing headphones at the computer, for example. While you have their ear, let them know the best time to have your undivided attention.

#4. Add Regular Exercise to Your Day

Working out benefits your mental health. Period. We know you’ve heard it before but the impacts are astonishing.  Just 40-60 minutes of moderate exercise lifts mood and improves attention. Replacing 15 minutes of sitting with a vigorous activity like running may even lower your risk of depression.

Nailing down the right time to move can be tricky when you have a funky work schedule but Arzt says some find it best to exercise right before work. “They say it provides an additional boost before they start their shift,” she says. If you think you’d prefer to exercise after your shift, go for it. At least one study  suggests that exercising before bed won’t negatively impact your sleep.

#5. Know Your Value And Advocate For It

Janeesa Hollingshead, EVP of Operations and Strategy at Shiftfillers, has interacted with thousands of shift workers throughout her career and says that horror stories involving workers being spoken down to by staffing agencies or managers are all too common.

“This lack of respect for shift workers and their value as individual human beings also surfaced through a lack of investment in their career development and trajectories,” Hollingshead says. She explains that organizations tend to expect high employee turnover in the shift work industry—a stigma that shows up in the way shift workers are treated and contributes to an unfortunate cycle. “If you treat workers like they’re not going to be a long-term part of your company, then they won’t be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.”

Hollingshead says that there are resources out there to help shift workers who are struggling and emphasizes being your own advocate. “Your employer may have employee assistance programs that they haven’t advertised, the Department of Labor can help to learn more about your rights as an employee, many local community organizations can assist with topics like housing—and that’s just a start.”

“Know that you are valuable and deserve respect,” Hollingshead stresses. “It can be tough to remember that if you’re in a work environment where you’re dealing with poor treatment from managers or customers, but write it on a note and stick it on your mirror as a reminder every single day.”

Remember—whatever challenges you’re facing, you don’t have to face them alone.

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Last Updated: Feb 19, 2021