Real life… working irregular hours.

Matt is in his early 30’s and has lived in Canada for the past six years.  He works as a bartender at a large hotel and he works irregular hours. He lives with his wife and dog.

Matt’s working hours in a hotel are typical of many in the service industry.  His shifts are between 8 and 10 hours, and he could start at 10 am or 7 pm.  The earliest he ever finishes work is 6 pm, but he can work until 5 am. His work schedule comes out weekly, so he can only plan week to week.  Working irregular hours has a big impact on his sleep. Sometimes he sleeps well and sometimes he doesn’t.  Sometimes he takes melatonin to help him sleep.

Matt is very aware of his sleep and how his waking hours impact his sleeping hours. This doesn’t mean he always sleeps well though.  He knows that for him, to sleep well certain factors must all come into line.

“I have to have completed my internal to-do list” he muses.  “Are there appointments tomorrow that I’ll think about and will keep me awake if I wake up.”  If Matts wife is working, she gets up at 6 am, and this wakes him up.  “Unless she wakes up before her alarm goes off” he laughs, and then he sleeps on through thanks to the soundproofed door they have installed on the bedroom. “If I’ve done a cardio workout, I find it easier to stay asleep, and if the shift I’ve been on has been physical with a lot of running around, then I konk out as soon as I get into bed.”

Keeping healthy and fit can help you sleep, but just because your body wants to sleep doesn’t mean your mind does as Matt is well aware.  “If the shift has had a lot of chatty customers and there’s been a ‘buzz’ then I find it difficult to fall asleep once I get home.” Matt reflects that if he’s been able to have breaks and eat proper meals at ‘normal times’ then he sleeps better. Otherwise, he wakes up because he’s hungry. “If I had to use coffee to stay awake and melatonin to sleep this has an effect as well though,” he says.  “But if I’ve worked many consecutive night shifts, then I begin to adapt to it, and so I sleep better.”



How do you feel the day after working into the early hours?

I consider myself an early bird. I’m awake in the morning even if I’ve worked late.
I consider myself an early bird. I’m awake in the morning even if I’ve worked late. I naturally wake up around 7 am no matter when I went to bed. If I have a lot on my mind, I usually can’t fall back asleep. But if I do fall back asleep after a night shift when I wake up, I feel groggy and like my head is wrapped in cotton wool. Everything is muted.



Do you sleep late or make sure you get 7 or 8 hours of sleep each day?

Usually no. The shifts vary so much that it’s difficult – I could be working a close then an open, which legally have to be 8 hours apart (in Canada.  In the UK it’s 11 hours), but that doesn’t leave time for showering, eating and traveling, so you end up with less than 8 hours of sleep. After a few days of night shifts and if I haven’t managed to fall back asleep in the mornings, I’ll take melatonin.  It totally knocks me out and I’ll sleep about 10 hours. But that makes me very groggy when I do wake up, so I only take it as a last ditch effort to regain some sleep.


Are you able to go to bed and get up at the same time most days?

My body and brain want me to but nope. If I get two consecutive days off, then I return to a more natural pattern – I’ll start feeling sleepy around 11 pm and wake up at 7 am.  I have the most energy in the morning and feel most alert and happy.


What do you do to make sure you sleep well after a night shift?

If the shift was particularly chatty and social, then I’ll have some chamomile tea to calm the brain down a bit. I’ll make sure I have a cold glass of water, and the window is open, so I don’t get too hot.  Which is fine where we live now because it’s mostly silent outside.   I can usually fall asleep easily because I’m exhausted, but have trouble getting back to sleep if I wake up.


Do you feel safe driving to and from work?

If it’s a late shift into the early hours and then a day shift, then no I don’t. Running on a few hours’ sleep and not eating at normal times to get the energy you need is terrible for your alertness.

Running on a few hours’ sleep and not eating at normal times to get the energy you need is terrible for your alertness.


How does this affect your relationship with your wife? Do you both work similar hours or opposite hours?

We work opposite hours most of the time.  She gets up at 6 am, and we still haven’t figured out how I can stay asleep through that. She sleeps like a log though, so when I get into bed in the early hours, it doesn’t wake her up. We installed soundproofing on the door, so we can go about our daily routines in the house while the other is asleep.

Her work is stressful, so sometimes she won’t be able to get much sleep either. We can both get grumpy when we’re tired. On days where we both haven’t slept much, we lack the ability to deal with grumpiness, so arguments sometimes happen.


What tips do you have for others working irregular hours?

Get a fit bit or use something that tracks your sleep.  It helps you know when you need to sleep more or take a nap.

I got a Fitbit a while ago, and I’ve used it mostly for sleep tracking. Through heart rate and movement sensing, it can tell you how much sleep you’ve had and what portion of it was REM, light or deep sleep.

When my shifts are all over the place, I’m mostly not paying much attention to how much sleep I’ve had, and how many times I have woken up in the night.  I can end up totally exhausted. If I’ve been drinking coffee a lot, then it’s harder to listen to my body telling me how exhausted I actually am. So, seeing a graph of how much sleep I have had explains a lot and prompts me to sleep more or have a nap if I need to.


If you work irregular hours, read about working shifts and irregular hours and see if there are any changes you can make to help you sleep better.  Sign up to become part of the Live Differently tribe at the bottom of this page, and you’ll get a free workbook with tips for your sleep, your bedroom, and your home environment.  Plus you’ll get a bi-monthly digital magazine straight to your inbox with all the latest information to help you sleep better.

Photo by Ivan Cortez on Unsplash

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