Graveyard shift: how to thrive instead of just survive.

graveyard cat

How to survive the graveyard shift

The night shift or “graveyard shift”. Ominous, isn’t it? It’s a big change from a normal 9-5 but its not as bad as you think.

By definition its the hours between midnight and 8am. When the rest of your family and friends are fast asleep, little ones tucked in bed with visions of sugar plums dancing.. wait I think I got turned around there. The reality is: yes you’ll be sleeping when everyone is awake and working while they are asleep but it doesn’t need to be the end of your social life.

As globalization makes it necessary for businesses to adapt to a 24 hour world, night shifts are getting more popular. In industrialized nations, up to 20% of workers work either night or rotating shifts. Chances are, if you are reading this then you too have joined the ranks of the third shift.

HistoryGraveyard shift

Some of the earliest reported origins of graveyard shift involve a night watchman at a graveyard listening to make sure that individuals were not buried alive. While the stories have been consistently debunked by historians,the theme has stuck in people’s minds and inspired authors such as Edgar Allan Poe in his literary works such as “The Premature Burial.”

According to Michael Quinion at World Wide Words the fear was based merely on a story and nothing more. He explains that the “graveyard shift is an evocative term for the night shift between about midnight and eight in the morning, when – no matter how often you’ve worked it – your skin is clammy, there’s sand behind your eyeballs, and the world is creepily silent, like the graveyard. The phrase dates only from the early years of the twentieth century.”

In the U.S., the term “graveyard watch” was used in “A Glossary of Sea Terms” published in 1927. In this usage, it referred to the shipboard watch extending from midnight to 4 a.m. – a time period during which a high number of marine disasters occurred.

Graveyard shift

Health risks

Experts believe that working the third shift can have an impact on your health if you don’t prepare for it.  Some of it may have to do with the lifestyle that shift work encourages. The rest has to do with our biology.

In terms of lifestyle, working odd hours leads to some obvious problems. People who do shift work tend to not leave enough time for sleep or get disrupted from having a solid  8 hours. They might feel isolated, since their jobs cut them off from their friends and families. They might find it harder to exercise regularly, and may be prone to eat junk food out of a handy vending machine.

The biggest disruption is that being awake at odd or irregular hours fights with our biological rhythms. Graveyard shift work disrupts the circadian rhythm — our internal body clock that is keyed to natural daylight and darkness. Because circadian rhythm affects how the body functions, disrupting it can throw everything out of whack — including our cardiovascular system, metabolism, digestion, immune system, and hormonal balance.

Although not everyone who works odd hours has shift work sleep disorder, a lot can be at stake. People with shift work disorder have higher rates of absenteeism and accidents related to sleepiness than night workers without the disorder.


Graveyard shift

Learn about your circadian rhythm. Often referred to as the “body clock”, the circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep and regulates many other physiological processes. This internal body clock is affected by environmental cues, like sunlight and temperature. When one’s circadian rhythm is disrupted, sleeping and eating patterns can run amok.
  • Exposure to light will send the message to your body that it’s time to be active.
  • When your optic nerve is exposed to low or no light, your body produces melatonin, which is responsible for making you feel the need to sleep

Keep your sleep consistent.  Whatever sleep schedule you find works best for you, stick to it. Regular sleep schedules over time will help establish a natural rhythm. This rhythm will help you sleep easier and allow you to be better rested.

  • If you do get off schedule, try to get back on it as soon as you can.
  • Ease into any new sleep schedule slowly if possible.
  • Keep your work night sleep schedule, even on nights off.
  • Changing your schedule can lower the amount of sleep you get overall.

Graveyard shiftAdjust your schedule.  You are going to need to make yourself a schedule and stick to it. Make sure your schedule leaves time for other important aspects of your life too. You need time to make the kids breakfast? Perhaps your spouse is on a normal schedule and you just want to make sure you have dinner with the? Take it all into consideration

  • Make time to spend with family and friends.
  • Make sure you leave enough time for errands, such as grocery shopping or going to the bank.
  • If you have trouble scheduling something, ask a friend or family to help take care of these day time tasks.
  • There is no best schedule, you will have to find what works for you.

Work with your family. Make sure your family knows about your new schedule so they aren’t calling you in the middle of the day ( your night) to chat. Don’t forget, you also need quality time with friends and family, and should schedule that time into your day.

  • Ask them to please be as quiet as they can during the time you are sleeping.
  • Always set aside time spend with family and friends.
  • Being social can help combat the effects of loneliness that can come with a night shift.
Limit light exposure after work. Any light exposure will add to the time it takes your body to fall asleep and will send a message to your brain that it’s time to be awake. Our bodies are programmed to be awake when the sun is up so you need to trick your body.
  • Wear sunglasses on the way home
  • Invest in blackout curtains or shades that block all light
  • Keep other rooms dark, such as your bathroom, in case you do wake up before you are done sleeping.

Graveyard shiftTry using stimulants and depressants. My preference is for energy drinks but don’t be afraid to have a coffee or 3 at midnight, its the start of your shift so treat it like your morning. This can help to wake you up keep you from nodding off during the shift. When you return home, relax and have a tea that helps you to sleep such as lavender or chamomile.

  • Stop taking caffeine at least six hours before sleep
  • Ask your doctor before using any pharmaceutical sleep aids
  • Consider taking melatonin to help “reset” your internal clock if you need to adjust to an irregular schedule.

Exercise and eat healthy. I struggle with this one myself, its all to easy to just get takeout or raid the vending machine.

  • Try not to skip any meals, its easy to overlook when you don’t follow a traditional schedule.
  • Don’t exercise or eat before sleep, it will keep you up,
  • Try to avoid sugary snacks as they may give you a boost, but then leave you even more tired after the effects subside.

I hope this helps you thrive while working the graveyard shift. Sure there will be nights/mornings where you miss some sleep but as long as you get back to your schedule you won’t end up “dead” tired.

Graveyard shift




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