Somebody has to do it.
Somebody has to care for the sick in the middle of the night or answer the call when shots ring out. Somebody has to haul goods over road or rail, day and night, or keep the machines of industry churning 24/7. Somebody has to work the all-night gas station or sort the packages that eventually land on our doorsteps. Somebody has to stock store shelves to get ready for the next morning and somebody has to clean offices after they are closed to the public.
On any given night, while my head is on the pillow, many of my neighbors are at work, providing safety and protection to the public. Others are on the job, serving the incessant demands of a society that no longer sleeps. They work, driven by businesses that never stop.
Approximately one in six U.S. workers is employed doing a version of shift work. Generally speaking, this term refers to work hours that fall outside the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. time frame, often including weekends. The National Sleep Foundation has a more restrictive definition of shift work, calling it all work that falls outside of a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday, extending shift work to include early morning and late evening hours plus rotating and weekend schedules. According to the NSF, approximately fifteen percent of full-time wage earners work non-traditional hours.
Most of us know someone who is directly affected by long and late work days that run throughout the night. Whether we work shift work ourselves, are related to someone who does, or are the recipients of the shift worker’s labor, the relationships within many families in our community is affected by this schedule.
While I suspect that in our community that there may be more than one in six employees occupied by shift work, one thing I know for sure: maintaining relationships and a good quality of life, while managing non-traditional work hours, doesn’t happen by accident. It takes deliberate planning.
Like many others, my family members are survivors of shift work. For nearly twenty-eight years, my husband worked a rotating shift and, prior to that, his jobs involved either straight nights or staggered shifts and weekends. In forty years of marriage, he has never worked a Monday through Friday, straight day job.
Yes, he was the one actually at work, but our family became a shift-working family. And that included his parents and my parents; all of our close connections were affected. Even when they knew he was off work, friends were cautious about calling for fear of waking him up needlessly. Frankly, while we were in the process of riding the shift working train, it was all I could manage to hang on and try to not wake Gerry up when he was asleep. It’s only now, with a few years’ hindsight, that I can look back and appreciate how challenging it was.
Decades ago, when Gerry first began working nights because that was the available shift, we didn’t have access to support in managing night work and family/social life. We stumbled along the best we could and stumbling it was. While he was never completely rested, I was always completely frustrated with the inconsistency of our lives, which felt to me like a chaotic mix of gratitude for steady work and deep fatigue, both physical and emotional.
Nowadays there are myriad online resources citing research, mostly about the increased risk of shift work on employees’ health (concerns about heightened risks of diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, digestive problems, depression, and infertility, among others). A quick online search yields page after page of concerns about how the disrupted circadian rhythm of night workers appears to play havoc with physical health.
However, when it comes to the relationship effects of shift work, the information circulating is mostly anecdotal. From person to person, successfully juggling family and friends with shift work remains a process of trial and error, an ongoing balancing act on the parts of everyone involved.
My perspective of shift work is biased because of its impact on my own family, so I checked in with others to get a fuller picture of how they wound up working nights or how their lives have been affected by someone else’s work schedule.
In several professions, coverage twenty-four hours a day is the nature of the job. Health care workers, law enforcement officers, and fire fighters face this as the reality of the work they are drawn to. These men and women knew the deal going in.
Several mentioned that they accomplished more work at night when the administrative staff is largely absent. In fact, they preferred the less intense atmosphere enough to choose nights.
A couple of friends opted for the late shift in order to juggle childcare with the other working parent. One woman looked back, shaking her head in amazement, at her years of working nights as a nurse and then coming directly home in the morning to care for her little one. Fueled by caffeine, she stayed awake, napping only when her child did. Handing her off to the dad when he got home in the afternoon, she got a little shut eye and headed back to the hospital to do it all over again.
The extra income from a shift differential was incentive for some to request nights. And speaking of income, more than one person mentioned that many who work nights have second jobs. Whether they have their own businesses or fit other employment in around their night work, the schedule allows them to bring in more income, be it a financial necessity or a choice.
Night owls opted for the late shift. These are the individuals who will never be perky in the morning no matter how much coffee they gulp down. Even if they weren’t working nights, they’d naturally be cleaning out closets at midnight and going to bed at 3 a.m.
Finally, and most often mentioned, was that employees wound up on nights simply because they needed a job and took what was available.
For some people the adjustment comes easier than to others, but the refrain “It gets harder” was repeated by every single person who’d worked the graveyard shift for years.
No matter the adjustment or the reasons for working nights, there is a thread of isolation that connects all of us affected by shift work. Even the men and women who opted to work nights acknowledged a sense of social disconnection, feeling out of sync with their families and friends.
Those effects ripple throughout the family and social network of the shift worker. Even when children try to understand the absence of a parent and are accustomed to Dad’s or Mom’s schedule, they miss their parent at special events, large and small. And to children, there are no small events. One woman told me about how it was for her as a child, always tiptoeing around the house, trying with all her might not to disturb Daddy because he’d be grumpy if she disturbed his day sleep. She didn’t get to have company because little girls are noisy. The pain lingers to this day because her dad missed so many of her birthdays when she was young and, even when he was off work, missed them because he said he was tired. Her father’s irritability is a touchstone of her childhood memories. The details differ but others shared similar recollections of the isolation of night shift extending through the lives of the children.
Clearly, shift work is here to stay, and it’s acutely affecting individuals, families, and communities for the long term. Either we deal with it deliberately or it deals with us.
From the perspective of my own hindsight and the welcome insight of night working friends and their families, here are some practical thoughts about caring for personal relationships while engaged in shift work:
• Keep a visual calendar so the whole family can see the time structure for everyone in the family. For younger children, one week at a time is plenty to look at. Adults and older children may want to schedule farther ahead, perhaps for the full month. Let children help mark the times when parents are available and also mark their own activities. Aim for time each week with each child, something that the child can look forward to. It may be routine simple tasks done together, but it’s the togetherness that the child will remember decades later. Because committing to every occasion isn’t possible, be realistic about what is workable and plan on that. Children generally handle that better than parents over committing and then cancelling.
• Fatigue breeds irritability. Simply being mindful of this can help the tired parent or spouse get a grip. Three deep breaths help diffuse the automatic reaction to lash out when tired. It takes practice, but the side effect is that it’s also refreshing. If three doesn’t work, take five deep breaths!
• It gets tiring for spouses too, handling children’s problems alone or trying to keep a quiet atmosphere so the day sleeper can rest. Coordinating times when parents can communicate and neither is exhausted is a problem. Except in emergencies that can’t wait, time to catch up on what’s happening is one of the things that must be scheduled.
• Cell phones make it easier than it used to be to keep in touch with family while at work. A quick call during break can mean the world to a child. And a spouse.
• Children need to express their experiences. It may not be possible for a parent to change their times of work; still, it matters that children release, in some way, what it’s like for them. Talking, drawing, making up songs and stories, are all ways to set the tension loose. Although child and parent may both say, “I wish it were different, but it’s not,” the child knows that the parent cares about what it’s like for her.
• Little acts matter. Children look forward to habits, so a note on a pillow or in a lunchbox may be more reassuring than adults imagine. Honor the small rituals. Keep in touch.
• It takes specific planning to maintain family and social life. The spouse who misses events due to work is apt to feel left out and the spouse who goes alone to special occasions is likely to feel lonely. An honest effort on the part of each partner to put themselves in the place of the other can offset resentment and foster connection instead of chagrin.
• Couple time is worth scheduling. The dedicated effort to spend time together, whether it’s a whole day off or sitting quietly over a cup of coffee, speaks more clearly than words about the commitment to the relationship.
If this planning sounds like effort, it is. Taking deliberate responsibility for managing time and honoring relationships creates the structure that allows the shift worker, family, and friends, to function in a mutually supportive framework, rather than in chaos.
Oh, and one more thing. Those of us who get to curl up and sleep the night through would do well to remember not to call the woman who works nights at two o’clock in the afternoon. We might just get a call back from her on her “afternoon” break…at two o’clock in the morning!