Who hasn't appreciated the convenience of picking up a prescription antibiotic at 10 p.m. or calling tech support late at night when your computer freezes? As our lives have become more chaotic, most of us have grown used to 24/7 convenience and having our emergencies handled at all hours. But for the increasing number of employees who provide late-night services, working outside the traditional daytime work hours takes a huge toll on their health and family life. Today about 15 million Americans — the people who come to our rescue at all hours — are shift workers who navigate the balancing act of marriage, child care and friendships amid irregular sleep and job schedules.
"I'm always exhausted," said Tiffany Sebregandio, an emergency room nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.
Eleven years after starting her nursing career on the night shift, she continues to work 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. "I enjoy it," she said.
Now, with children aged 1 and 5, Sebregandio often spends her night starting IVs or administering CPR to an accident victim and arrives home just in time to have her 5-year-old daughter tuck her into bed before Dad drops her at school.
If all goes well, Sebregandio may get a few hours of sleep before she awakes to run errands, pick up her younger son from daycare, prepare dinner and eat with her family before she heads back to the hospital. If a child is sick or her husband works late, she may have to give up sleep and try to squeeze in a catnap later in the day.
"My sleep pattern is all over the place," she said. "But if I worked the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift, I'd never get to see my kids."
Earlier this month, I participated in a blogger roundtable with three people who work nontraditional shifts — a motorcycle cop, a pilot and an emergency medical services worker. All three could be headed to work when the rest of us are slipping under the covers. They spoke about the challenges of making their lives work on the clock and off.
The pilot mentioned he once fell asleep on the job, only to look over and see his co-pilot asleep, too. The motorcycle cop said he relies on his wife to understand that he needs to sleep rather than help with the kids when returning home after long shifts. And the emergency medical services worker, who is married to a firefighter, revealed she has spent many a Christmas or Halloween alone or alone with their kids because her husband was on a shift.
For some, shift work comes with the job choice — truck driver, doctor, policeman, hotel worker. For others, it came about more recently from a career change or their eagerness to snag a position in this horrible job market, even if it means working the less popular shifts.
Shift work used to be mostly concentrated in manufacturing, but the growth of the service economy and the increase of women in the labor force have been behind the increase in jobs with non-traditional hours. Women now make up half of all full-time shift workers, snapping up jobs that better suit their family schedules.
The change is making the home-time structure of the American family more complex, says Harriet Presser, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and author of Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families.
Today, one-third of all dual-earner couples with children include at least one spouse working a nontraditional shift. The staggered work schedule usually creates a frugal solution to child care. "You're essentially getting a husband who's leaving for work when the wife comes home," Presser said.
Clearly, sleep issues that arise can be the most difficult aspect of shift work. About 70 percent of shift workers report difficulty sleeping and excessive sleepiness on the job. Some suffer from shift work disorder, a medical condition in which the body's internal clock is out of sync with a person's work schedule. Even when workers sleep the same number of hours as someone who works days, they feel tired.
"What matters is which hours people work, not just the number of hours they work, because they're fighting their natural body clocks," explained Mary Umlauf, chair of the national disease education initiative by Cephalon, which runs TheWakeUpSquad.com, a website dedicated to educating shift workers and their families on the health concerns associated with non-traditional schedules. "They shouldn't just take in more caffeine; they need to seek medical care."