Mind & Spirit

How to survive working shifts

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

How to survive working shifts

This story was originally titled "Shift Happens" in the March 2011 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

For many years, I freelanced as a proofreader at a national weekly magazine. My job was to pore over all the stories before they went to press, checking for typos, factual inconsistencies and anything else that caught my eye. The shifts were crazy: At times I worked from 10 a.m. on Saturday until 7 a.m. on Sunday.

There was a lot to love – the fast-paced environment, the good money and the unbeatable camaraderie of a bare-bones production crew who were always up for comedy at 4 a.m. Still, the long and unpredictable hours ruined family plans and created odd sleeping patterns that have never been righted.

Do you work irregular hours?
More and more Canadians can identify with these challenges. Studies by Statistics Canada and scholarly organizations estimate that between one-quarter and one-third of the employed – everyone from journalists, health-care workers and emergency responders to those in the manufacturing and hospitality industries – have jobs that are done outside the regular nine-to-five workweek. In fact, even nine-to-fivers now sometimes work on weekends, at night and on vacation, reports the Vanier Institute of the Family.

The good news is that working odd hours and making the most out of downtime is possible, especially with good planning and a sensible "me too" attitude. Greta Cummings, a registered nurse and nursing professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, strives to impart the idea of investing in yourself, no matter what hours you put in. "When I was young, so many people didn't understand that," she says. Now, "if a 27-year-old nurse says to me, 'I'm exhausted, what am I going to do?' I say, you need to be able to learn to lead yourself. That includes finding your own strengths, your own values and having a vision for your life.

Look at how much you can give professionally, how much you can give personally and how much time you need to spend looking after yourself. That is the beginning of being able to develop the balance you need."


Page 1 of 4 – Discover why it pays to eat well and keep fit when you work irregular hours on page 2.
The importance of eating well and being fit
Bridget Glen, 34, and her partner, Jonathan Britton, 35, share a sensible approach to a healthy work-life balance. Bridget is a constable with York Regional Police in Richmond Hill, Ont., and Jonathan is a flight paramedic in Toronto. They work some of the hardest shifts – and jobs – imaginable. Yet they invest their time wisely by making it a priority to take care of themselves.

High on their must-do list is exercise. Jonathan lifts weights, runs, goes mountain biking and spends time walking Darcy, the couple's Great Dane – a physical workout that's also good for his psyche. "That friendship is wonderful," he says. "It really helps me wind down." Bridget, who boards a horse at a nearby farm, agrees. "Having a horse and a dog is great because they get me out and active, even in the wintertime," she says. Like Jonathan, she lifts weights, and she also plays soccer and runs on a treadmill at the gym. "I need to be physically fit for my job because there is always going to be that person out there who is stronger and fitter than I am," she says. "Plus, when you're working night shifts and you're going against your circadian rhythms, it's good to be fit and eat well."

Bridget laughs when I ask about the typical cop TV show diet of doughnuts and coffee. "I could not function that way," she says. "I pack a lunch. Or I stop at the grocery store on my way in and grab a salad with protein that will carry me through the night. If I don't, I get so tired I can't think."

• Make it a priority to look after yourself first.

• Find time for physical activity, and plan nutritious meals – all the better to stay energized.

How to share your workload
Cindy Grainger, a 46-year-old operating room nurse at the Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, credits her husband, Garth, for his empathy and his willingness to share the load over their 24 years together. When Cindy went back to work after their two children entered grade school, she and Garth learned to tag team their activities. When she could, she took the kids to hockey; when she couldn't, Garth did. The fact that he has always worked a normal day job has also helped. "My husband has taken his share of personal days when the kids were sick," she says. "It was easier for him; he could go in at night and finish things up at work. It wasn't as pressing as a patient load."

• Stay connected with your family and friends.

• Ask your partner for support and, when necessary, a little compromise.


Page 2 of 4 – Discover how to ask others for help on page 3.
Asking others for a hand
Like Jonathan, Cindy praises the camaraderie among colleagues for making shift work bearable. "Wherever I have worked, it has been a team approach," she says. "Nurses try to pull together and help each other out." Especially on the night shift, "because there are fewer people there and there's less noise. And in a way that's less stressful because you don't have everybody coming at you." An added bonus: grocery shopping and banking are easier during the day, when most people are at work.

As for the inevitable things she's missed, Cindy says she has been absent for her share of parent-teacher meetings, but she's learned not to beat herself up over it. "If I couldn't make it, my husband would go," she says. "Otherwise I would contact the teacher and arrange for a meeting outside of their set times. They were always willing to accommodate me." Cindy also mentions a friend of hers who works shifts and says she feels like a "loser mom" because she can't go on field trips with her kids like other mothers. "I told her not to worry. When the kids are older they probably won't remember that anyway."

In the end, shift work, like any other job, is a routine, says Greta Cummings. "People maybe don't see their kids for a few days, aside from tucking them into bed, but then they get three or four days off and on those days they concentrate on doing homework with the children and going for a jog. People do get used to making it work for them."

• Ask others to accommodate and meet you in the middle; for example, by scheduling appointments outside of regular hours.

• Don't be afraid to lean on your colleagues – they know what you're going through.

Should you rely on others?
Loved ones are also important. Bridget stays close to her family in Ottawa by calling them every day and visiting when she has a block of days off. Jonathan buddies up with his cohorts. "People always talk about the fire department being a family," he says. "It's true for me too. You have to be tight. On the job you have to trust your partner, and your workmates are the people you go to when you're having a hard time coping." Jonathan says his work friends "understand the stress." Another perk is that he and Bridget understand each other. "If Bridget is on nights and I'm off, no problem. I let Bridget sleep and I take care of the dog and everything."


Page 3 of 4 – Striking a healthy balance can be difficult when you work shifts. Discover how to rebalance your life on page 4.
How to find balance when you work shifts
• Eat a balanced meal when you wake up, no matter what time it is. For shift workers, "their body clocks get thrown off and they don't know when they're hungry or when to stop eating," says Rosie Schwartz, a dietitian and nutritionist. Take healthy lunches to work and plan ahead when you're cooking family dinners, she says. Take leftovers, such as cold fish, a green salad, and some rice and vegetables, she advises.

• Exercise. "Even if it's the last thing you want to do, a brisk walk four or five times a week will make you feel better, even if you're lacking sleep," says Schwartz.

• Get those z's.
"Sleeping during the day is not something your body wants to do," says Jonathan Britton, a paramedic in Toronto. "I turn the phone off. I have thick blinds. Most of the time, I wear earplugs."

• Spend time with your pets.
Bridget Glen, a police officer in Richmond Hill, Ont., says her animals help her relieve stress. "It's nice to talk nonsense to the dog and horse. Even if I come to the barn and the horse is caked in mud, I take my time grooming him. It makes me feel so good."

• Pick your boss wisely.
Greta Cummings, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta, is currently investigating what she calls a "relational leadership style." Managers who use this type of leadership are focused on empathy, being receptive to feedback and seeing employees as an organization's most precious resource, she says, which is far better for one's health than the "command and control" boss.

• Enjoy the benefits. There are pros to working off-hours, says Jonathan, such as doing your errands when there's no one around. "I did a span in management at one point and I worked Monday to Friday, nine-to-five, and followed everyone else's pattern. I felt I didn't have time to do anything." And best of all, Jonathan says, "If our schedules match up, Bridget and I have four days together. It's like a mini-vacation. We can go out for the day and do whatever we like instead of having to wait for the weekend like other people. We can go for a drive in the country, go to a museum, come to the barn. It's wonderful."


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How to survive working shifts

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