We already knew that night shifts were bad for us. Now it turns out that they’re really bad for us. Ben Milne – a veteran of the overnight – is not surprised.
Night shifts hurt us at a molecular level, according to the latest research. But unless someone comes up with a way to make illness, fires, accidents (let alone such inessentials as air flight and road repairs) happen only between 09:00 and 17:00, somebody is always going to have to do them.
So what’s the best way to get through the wee hours? Firstly, switch your brain down to the essential functions. This is not just to preserve energy. It also blinds you from the sheer madness of being awake and sober at 02:00. In the words of REM’s Daysleeper – the best song ever written on the subject – “I am the screen, I work at night.”
Secondly, nutrition: Eat the right food – lots of fresh fruit and plenty of water. Yeah, right.
This is the reality – it’s 03:30 and the only source of sustenance is a well-kicked vending machine, whose contents have mysteriously started to look quite attractive. Chilli-burger flavour corn snacks washed down with a jumbo-sized can of fizzy tropical fruit drink? Don’t mind if I do.
Do you sleep during your breaks or push on through? In the labyrinth of the now-closed Television Centre where I worked the vast majority of my nights, I had a secret list of unoccupied offices complete with comfortable sofas and low light where I could catch half an hour’s zeds during the equivalent of my lunch hour. The downside was waking up after 20 minutes unsatisfactory dozing, dry-mouthed and hair aloft from the static of synthetic sofa, with the realisation that the shift was far from over.
And then you’re home at 10:00 and mysteriously wide awake. Or there are building workers next door very inconsiderately working in daylight hours. Trying to stay asleep in the day is like holding a ball underwater – there’s a part of your consciousness which is always trying to surface. And then you’re back at work again, even more tired than the night before.
So the short answer is, don’t do it. But then you realise that all those extra night payments might cover this year’s holiday. Or they’ve just changed your terms and conditions and you’re stuffed anyway.