10 Ways to Survive Working the Graveyard Shift

The Town

Millions of Americans start work while the rest of the country’s populace has closed their eyes for a good night’s rest. Financial analysts concerned with overseas markets, air traffic controllers, hotel desk attendants, police officers, mechanics, meteorologists, and countless other professions involve 24-hour operations and you may be part of that one day. In fact, WebMD notes, “In industrialized nations, up to 20% of workers work either night or rotating shifts, according to an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

As one that worked midnights periodically for nineteen years, I can assure you that the midnight shift is not for everyone, but if you are fresh out of college or looking for a career change and the overnight shift becomes a possibility, make sure you are properly prepared to handle this endeavor. Working nocturnally involves an understanding of one’s own body as much as it does performing the tasks required by an employer. It’s not just about enduring being up all night long, it’s about being alert, energetic, and productive. It’s not one shift, it’s a plethora of shifts and often it can last for months or even years. While it may seem like a daunting task to stay up all night, every night, it can be done, there are even those who prefer it.

If you have to work a graveyard shift don’t stress yourself out. We’ve compiled a list with ten ways that will help you get through this experience as painlessly as possible.

1. Preparation

Transitioning from a typical sleep schedule to working throughout the night, requires one to prepare the body a day or two prior to working.

Many choose to stay up late the night before in order to sleep-in as long as possible the next morning. It is imperative that you take the necessary steps for successful sleeping beyond your normal wake-up time. Some suggestions as to use ear-plugs, sleep in a room away from children, or even use white noise. Often, typical morning sounds arouse us, so you must find a way to avoid hearing those noises.

Others, however, choose to go to bed earlier than normal the night prior to a midnight shift and subsequently awaken extra early the following morning. This allows for a good night’s rest, while it also allows one to take a nap in the afternoon or evening prior to working the midnight shift. Many people prefer this method because the nap occurs as close to the shift as possible. Others find this difficult because the pressure to fall asleep in the evening ultimately prevents one from dozing off.

Regardless of the method, it is important to find one that works for you. But, you should know, if you have never done a midnight shift, the normal disruption of your natural sleep patterns will take a toll, so it may take several days and shifts to properly adjust. The more sleep you can get prior to, and after, a midnight shift, the better the result.

2. Post-Shift Sleep

For some, coming home and going right to bed is the best way to get as much sleep as possible. For others, it is better to stay up a few hours after the end of one’s shift, thus developing a routine that avoids a feeling of sleepiness towards the end of every midnight shift.  What matters is consistency. Finding a consistent bedtime allows the body to adapt and develop a consistent sleep pattern. Find a method that works and adhere to that routine.

As previously mentioned, it is important to create a healthy sleeping environment to allow for effective day sleeping. The National Sleep Foundation has tips for sleeping during the day.

One additional tip; if it is possible, avoid long commutes.  If tired, driving home can be incredibly dangerous, so if you can avoid it, then opt to not drive after working all night long. More importantly, less time in the car is more time available for sleep.

3. Eating and Drinking

Stay hydrated, eat well, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. A multitude of energy drinks and coffee may seem like a good idea, but your body will respond better to hydration, healthy eating, and, of course, sleep. In addition, alcohol is no help for one trying to remain alert, awake, and well rested.

Also, develop an eating schedule that re-creates the normal routine you’ve become accustomed to. Because you are up at a time you would normally be snoozing, you are going to get hungry at a time that doesn’t adhere to the normal "breakfast-lunch-dinner" schedule. It is easy to gravitate towards junk foods or fast food when hungry and tired, but it is imperative to maintain healthy habits. Some choose to eat breakfast at work in order to maintain the same eating habits they’ve enjoyed their whole life. Others choose to adjust each meal one "time-slot." In other words, they eat breakfast when they wake up in the afternoon, a dinner or lunch in the evening, and another lunch or dinner while at work.  

Whatever you choose, understand that digestive issues often accompany a lack of healthy sleep. It is just as important to adjust one’s eating schedule as it is a sleeping schedule. Be healthy, be consistent, and develop a system that works for you. There are lots of nutrition tips online to help you get through your night shift.

4. Healthy Habits


In general, good health habits are always smart, but if you are going to endure the rigors of midnights, it is a good idea to treat your body with extra care. Why? Gaining weight, eating junk food, drinking sugary drinks, a lack of exercise, consuming alcohol and caffeine all affect the quality of sleep. Sleep is more than just a time to rest; it is a time for the body to do maintenance. The more effective the sleep, the greater the ability one has to function well the next day. Those who exercise and eat well, sleep more efficiently. In other words, if you can only sleep 5-6 hours a day, make sure it’s a high quality sleep.

5. Acceptance

You need to develop a mindset that it no longer feels abnormal to be up at night. In fact, find the positives of it and embrace it. Many people find the stillness and calmness of overnight work pleasing. Others enjoy working without many bosses around. Other people enjoy going home while everyone else is going to work, while some people just hate the thought of being "normal." Whatever your reason, a healthy attitude goes a long way towards staying awake. 

6. Adapt to the Lack of Sunlight

Blocking light is important when sleeping, but exposing oneself to ambient light during a work-shift can help you remain awake. 

Moreover, in the times between sleep and work, it is imperative that you place yourself in as much sunlight as possible. Living in eternal darkness has serious repercussions on one’s health. In fact, a 2009 article in the Harvard Medical School Health Publication details a bevy of serious issues that result from a lack of Vitamin D, which is the vitamin that the sun provides naturally.

7. Don't Fight Fatigue

If you find yourself dragging, and are not at work, take a nap when you can. It may be tempting to enjoy an energy drink, but that isn’t what your body needs. There is no shame in sleeping when you get home and before work. Feel free to take naps on your days off, too. However, while an extra nap is nice, don’t expect to be well rested if you choose to constantly nap rather than find time to sleep for an extended period. Regular sleep is necessary; naps are only meant to help.

Much like a professional athlete must treat his or her body differently than most in order to succeed in his or her profession, a shift worker must treat sleep as a necessary tool for succeeding at work (not while at work, obviously). If you find yourself a little extra tired, take a nap.

8. Maintain the Same Sleep Schedule

girl sleeping

Don’t stray too far from a midnight-shift sleep schedule, unless you have to. Most of the world functions on a daytime schedule, so this may be difficult, but it behoves one to avoid flip-flopping between two sleep schedules because the transitions can be taxing on the body. When you find a good routine, stick with it. However, if you find yourself with a few days off, or maybe on vacation, research suggests that returning to a day schedule for a time can help restore the body. No matter how well one can acclimate to midnight shifts, the body’s natural rhythm involves being awake during the day and asleep at night. So, if you don’t have to be on midnights for a while, sleep normally. Otherwise, if your only time off from night shifts is a weekend or a few days off, it is best to stay on schedule and avoid the constant re-acclimation. 

9. Don't Accept "Feeling Tired"

As a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Seminars in Neurology concludes, "Deficits in daytime performance due to sleep loss are experienced universally and are associated with a significant social, financial, and human cost. Microsleeps, sleep attacks, and lapses in cognition increase with sleep loss as a function of state instability.” Sleep deprivation studies repeatedly show a variable (negative) impact on mood, cognitive performance, and motor function due to an increasing sleep propensity and destabilization of the wake state

In other words, although one can be accustomed to living on little sleep, it does not benefit you to learn how to handle constant fatigue. Sleep deprivation can lead to sickness, obesity, memory loss, cognitive impairment, depression, irritability, and even diabetes and heart disease. Also, you may endure bouts of “micro-sleep” that can be dangerous when driving, for you, your passengers, and all other drivers. In fact, many studies suggest that driving with moderate sleep deprivation equates to driving while drunk.

Don’t endure midnight shifts, adjust to them.

10. Be Honest With Yourself

If you have worked midnights for an extended period, but continue to struggle, find another job. Working overnights is not for everyone and if you find yourself physically or mentally ill, it is probably not the job for you. You don’t need to “tough it out.” Many people give up jobs because they require too much travel, too many hours, too much heavy lifting, and so-on. Working midnights is no easy task and not everyone can handle it. Know your limits.

A recent AP article noted research done by the F.A.A: "The study found that nearly 2 in 10 controllers had committed significant errors in the previous year — such as bringing planes too close together — and over half attributed the errors to fatigue. A third of controllers said they perceived fatigue to be a "high" or "extreme" safety risk. Greater than 6 in 10 controllers indicated that in the previous year they had fallen asleep or experienced a lapse of attention while driving to or from midnight shifts, which typically begin about 10 p.m. and end around 6 a.m."

In other words, if you work a midnight shift, take it seriously. Your inability to adjust can be detrimental to those around you, those on the road while you are driving, and those that rely on you while at work. And, of course, it will be detrimental to your own health if you don’t learn how to handle working throughout the night. 

Midnight shifts can be very rewarding for many people. For others, they are a temporary step in one’s evolving career. Either way, midnight shifts are a reality in this increasingly 24-hour world and if you have to work during the overnights, find a way to do it well. It doesn’t have to be an arduous task, unless you resist adjusting and refuse to develop a routine.

National Sleep Foundation
Moderate Sleep Deprivation Impairments
Shift Workers