How to Survive Working a Night Shift Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Survive Working a Night Shift

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Human beings have, over time, discovered that by working they can lead pretty useful lives during the day. Get up in the morning, eat breakfast, commute, work, eat lunch1, come home, eat dinner and sleep. Then earn a dismally unappealing wage to feed, clothe, and house themselves in the process.

However, with the invention of the electric lightbulb, humanity found it could continue working after the sun had gone down. Under the hazy glow of artificial light many people do so now for a variety of reasons - financial, social, family-related or because they're actually vampires2.

We Only Come Out at Night

The most common forms of nocturnal employment include that of healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses, paramedics, emergency service operatives, factory or supermarket workers and adult service industry providers. There are of course many other jobs that entail working at night in today's modern society - too many to list. The purpose of this Entry is to provide those that may find themselves drawing the short straw, and starting work when most other people are heading off to bed, with tips on how to cope with that time between dusk and dawn.

Be Prepared

The best method of getting ready for working the 'graveyard shift' is all in your preparation. This is mostly an individual thing, but the following ideas could help:

  • Get 'Forty Winks' - During the day before you start your first night shift, try laying down for a little while in the afternoon. If you sleep, great! You'll be even more refreshed for the long haul ahead. If not, some quiet time on the sofa watching reruns of Star Trek is probably enough to recharge your batteries. Power naps during the day, and even during your night shift, will help you climb over the early morning 'wall'3.
  • Have a Shower or Bath - A bath or shower is helpful in making you feel refreshed, but it can also play tricks on the mind. Have a nap just before dinner, then follow your usual waking routine. Whether you have breakfast then a shower, or have a shower then breakfast - do the same. A good meal is the best start to any day, even if it is the night4. Breakfast can of course be your evening meal, as it helps fool the body that you've just arisen - ready for the day. Albeit a very dark and star-filled 'day'.
  • Relaxation Techniques - Being relaxed during the day will help you get through the wee small hours. A massage is great, or simply listening to some quiet music. Take some time out from your routine. Bundle the significant other/flatmates/kids/pets over to the neighbour's/pub/grandma's,forget about the ironing/washing/chores, turn on some muzak and just let your mind go. It's helpful in keeping you alert when the Sandman comes beckoning at 3am.
  • Last Resorts

  • Contract an Illness - Possibly not wise, as it means you'll be spending time with your doctor, but try getting sick, as one h2g2 Researcher recalls:
    We call them 'Mental Health Days'. That's when we call in because we're sick of work (of course, we might throw in a cough or sniffle for 'authenticity').
    There are a multitude of diseases to choose from but for those who want the best, go for something contagious. It means time off work because you might give it to your colleagues. Just don't get seen by your boss shopping in town over the next few days.
  • Swap Your Shift - A bit of a cop-out, but if you really can't face 'nights', try conning one of your colleagues to change their shift with you. Particularly if you're on rotating shifts, meaning you could follow a night shift with a day shift, then an afternoon shift and so forth - which can play merry havoc with your internal body clock. You might not believe it but there are those who actually like doing the night shift. Some people call them 'night-owls'. Others call them a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Mind you, night shift working does have its benefits as you invariably miss out on all the workplace politics and don't have the management breathing down your neck or getting in the way of perfectly satisfactory working practices.

Pinch Me, I'm Dreaming

Once at work and into your night shift, the most difficult part of it all is staying awake. Avoid yawning at all costs if possible. Along with anyone else who even remotely looks like they might be about to yawn. Yawning is something that seems to spread like wildfire and bring about sleepy feelings. Yawned yet? You will. Anyway, the following are just some of the more common methods of avoiding slipping into a state of deep sleep:

  • Artificial Stimulants - Ahhhh. Coffee. There are many other forms of stimulant available to keep your motor running. Anything with loads of sugar in it, such as cola, chocolate or jelly babies can also help give you that extra 'pep'. If you don't have a sweet tooth, a 'bacon buttie'5 will fill an empty stomach. If you don't enjoy pork products, try some fruit salad.
  • Drugs - Well, yes, perhaps caffeine is actually a drug, but try telling a coffee drinker that and they'll give you a withering look. There are other things to use such as 'Pro-Plus'6, guarana7 or even illegal narcotics such as amphetamines or cocaine... but whatever you call it, just don't. It's not worth it. Some people have found nicotine helpful but if you don't smoke, please avoid taking up cigarettes in order to help you get through a night shift. While not exactly 'drugs' per se, a selection of good vitamin tablets such as Vitamin C or D are also helpful in replenishing the body, especially if you haven't been eating well. Of course, it goes without saying to be careful when trying this route for the very first time. Don't go laying into the 'hard' stuff straight off.
  • Noise - Music or talking loudly can help in keeping you awake. Have colleagues sneak up on you every now and then to scream BOO!! in your ear8: a sure-fire way of keeping you awake and on your toes. If you go down the music route ensure it's loud, irritating and something you'll end up singing along to. Britney Spears or the Spice Girls are perfect examples. However, as you near the end of your shift you may prefer winding down to something a little more relaxing, such as Portishead.
  • The Elements - Often the smoker's excuse - 'I need some fresh air', but it actually does help. Cool night air that is, not smoking. Stepping out into the cool can help you feel more awake and able to carry on through the rest of the shift. Splashing cold water onto your face can also assist in keeping you alert. Be wary that you don't splash too much though, or you're liable to look like you've had a shower with your clothes on.
  • Fear - It's night. It's probably dark. All kinds of terrifying 'things' come out at night don't they? If working with a few other people why not swap ghost stories? Or if by yourself, read a good horror story. Stephen King can oblige. Every little sound you hear will be amplified and you're sure to stay awake - especially if you think the bogeyman is going to get you!

And Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest

Hopefully, by using some of the above tips, you've managed to get through a night shift! Congratulations! Now you have to get home safely to bed. If using public transport don't fall asleep and drool on the person sitting beside you, or worse still miss your stop and end up in Glasgow. Yes, it's a little-known fact that if you fall asleep on any public transport, anywhere in the world, you'll end up in Glasgow9.

If making your own way back to bed, be extra cautious when driving, riding or walking. The law has been known to be a little less stringant in the early morning hours as police officers are more than likely just finishing up their shifts too. Don't take liberties. It's also Murphy's Law you'll invariably wake up, all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed ready to face another day, so this is the time when all those tried and true techniques for alleviating insomnia come into play. Use them! A sleep mask and some ear plugs may not be enough!

When you get in, keep to a routine. Some people like to go to bed straight away after finishing their night shift and awake mid-afternoon, while others prefer staying up and going to bed mid-morning or noon to wake an hour or two before they need to be at work. Try both methods and see which works best for you. Some exercise before you drift off to the land of nod can work wonders too - either some sit-ups and maybe a stint on a rowing machine. Or if that sounds a little dull why not partake in some vigorous sex? Eating before going to sleep after your 'night' can also help - some swear by it, and others 'swear' by it. A little toast and some warm milky tea10 usually helps though.

Before You Doze Off

All in all, look after your body and it will look after you. You can survive on a little amount of sleep, but it is not advisable. Failing that, though, simply find a hiding place at work and catch up on a few hours kip. Just be sure you don't get caught!

1Liquid or otherwise.2This is fairly unlikely.3This refers to that time in the morning where it just doesn't seem possible to stay awake, and every action feels like you've either hit or are trying to climb over a brick wall.4Avoid too many carbohydrates however, because this makes you want to sleep in order to digest.5A bacon sandwich with lashings of butter or margarine, rinds of well-done bacon and a splash of tomato or brown sauce.6Caffeine tablets.7A type of herbal stimulant from the Americas.8Other silly games or activities can help prevent sleepiness too.9Well, actually, it's utter piffle.10A weak Earl Grey or chamomile is recommended.

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