Shifting your routine

I read a post today from Nicholas Rossis. It was about his lack of sleep now that a new baby has arrived, and also how some writers claim that their best work is achieved by staying up late into the night. It got me thinking about a long life of working shifts before I retired. How we all coped, and adjusted the usual routine of life to accommodate the rigours of working at times when most of the rest of the population were still sleeping, or enjoying time off with their families. I have written about some aspects of this before, and since retiring from work, I have become acutely aware of just how difficult is is to settle back into what is regarded as the normal routine.

I started to work a three-shift rota as long ago as 1980. After completing my training with the Ambulance Service, I soon transferred to emergency duties, which of course involve weekend working, and the provision of twenty-four hour cover, even on public holidays. It was not as simple as I had expected it to be. I imagined one period of early starts, followed by a run of middle shifts, leading onto a spell of night duty. However. the intricacies of planning rotas do not allow for such easy options, and instead I was given a mish-mash of early shifts followed by late shifts, days off followed by a week of nights, then a couple of days off, and it all started again. It was all very well finishing work at 3 pm, if you got off on time. But by the time you were ready to enjoy the evening, you felt tired, and reminded yourself that you had to be up by 4.30 am the next morning.

The middle or late shift looked good on paper. You didn’t have to start until 3 pm, so you could enjoy a lie-in, followed by an early lunch (that you didn’t always want to eat) before arriving at work. The trouble was, that you didn’t finish until 11 pm, just when it was getting busy, so that generally meant you would be lucky to get home much before 12.30. You arrive back into a dark and quiet house, a wife sleeping upstairs, and neighbours all tucked up too. But you feel like it is still tea-time. You want to eat something, relax and unwind with some TV or music; to have what is for you, the ‘normal’ evening. So you make a sandwich as quietly as possible, and try to watch a film with the TV on minimal volume. By the time you are actually ready to go to sleep, sometime around 2.30 am, you run the risk of disturbing your wife as you climb into bed. And she has to be up and about by 7 am, five days a week.

Once you get to the week of night shifts, the disruption really begins to become apparent. The first night feels easy. You spend the evening much as normal, then head off to work for the 10 pm start. But you have not managed to have any extra sleep, and may well have been up since 8 am, and doing routine things at home. You walk into the busy period at work, and have no time to realise that you are already quite tired. By 3 am, you can hardly keep your eyes open, and you hope that it stays busy. If the work doesn’t keep coming, a moment’s rest on an armchair will see you fall into a deep sleep immediately. In the morning, you travel home against the rush hour. You watch all those regular commuters struggling with public transport and traffic jams in the opposite direction, and look forward to your day in bed.

Unfortunately, life has other ideas. Postmen, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Parcel Couriers, Political Canvassers, and all manner of other callers would make a bee-line for my door. An open window was a sure invitation to ring the bell until I gave in, and answered. Then there were the ‘phone calls. Relatives, friends, sales people. Often well-meaning, usually just trying in the hope of catching you on a day off. They would be apologetic of course, but it was too late by then. You had answered. Then there were the road works, drain repairs, building refurbishments, and general DIY projects around the street. If you survived those, then came the school holidays. Excited children playing in the gardens or outside, high-pitched screams of joy as they enjoyed their break from school. At weekends, my wife had to pad around the house, usually giving in, and leaving to visit friends or relatives.

Social occasions became an issue. Military-style planning was required to attend a wedding, a birthday party, even a funeral. Get short notice, and you were sure to have the leave application turned down. And nobody ever understood. Why couldn’t I come? I never accepted any invitations, they moaned. It was always about me, fitting in around my shifts, because of my job. I unplugged the telephone, took the batteries out of the doorbell, even put notices on the door-knocker. Curtains stayed shut all day, and I lay in bed with the covers over my head, to shut out some of the sound. I was a partial recluse, struggling to get enough sleep to get through a week of night shifts. As for the invitations, I began to just refuse them, hardly bothering to even try to argue to get the time off, or to haggle with colleagues to get a change to do their shift instead. But I carried on, because it was a good thing to do, a worthwhile job that had to be done, and I had chosen to do it.

But all those years come with associated fallout. Broken marriages, failed relationships, friends lost and new ones never made. Occasions missed, resentments abounding, and an overriding feeling that I only lived half a life in the real world, spending the other half in a place populated by the emergency services, factory workers, miners, and others who must work shifts. Of course, I can also see that the other half of that life was actually the ‘real world.’ The one where people expect everything to be available every day, for twenty four hours a day, provided it is not them that have to do it. Broken sleep, irregular eating, excessive smoking, and eating snack foods at inappropriate times, all of this leaves us shift-workers with unwelcome legacies. High cholesterol for many, including me, diabetes for a disproportionate amount of former colleagues, a high divorce rate, and an inability to fit back into a routine you spent so long overcoming.

There are other things too. A reluctance to tolerate fools, a tendency to road rage and irritation, a distinct lack of empathy, and failure to establish anything resembling a regular sleep pattern. Of course, nobody forced me to do it, and I could have stopped, looked for another job, returning to the nine-to-five. But I didn’t, because I thought that what I was doing was worth the consequences, even though it set me outside of what most consider to be a normal life. So the next time you ring 999, call out a breakdown service for your car, or even pop into the all-night petrol station, spare a thought for the people who make it possible.

And here’s a link to Nick’s post. His blog is well worth a look, I have bought two of his books!

I’ll sleep when I’m dead

Advertisements

34 thoughts on “Shifting your routine

  1. When I was in the Navy, I worked every shift a man could think of. I completely understand. One of the reasons I chose to become a teacher was because the academic calendar is the finest one of all the careers. I was thinking of becoming a nurse, but chose teacher instead. Whew!

    Like

  2. What a great post you have here Pete.. I can relate as my late husband spent many years in the Military doing shift work as well… All I can say it does take a toll on your health… and I’m not sure how I kept the young babies quiet while he was sleeping… Take care, Laura ~

    Like

  3. I hated being on call when I was a trainee, although it didn’t really involve shifts then (if you were working at night on call you still were expected to work the next day, even if you might have been unlucky enough to work all night, and on weekends you were on call 48 hours and then carried on working on Monday…). It wasn’t so much the not sleeping, as the not knowing if you might get called. Of course as soon as you decided nobody would call, then they’d call. I have a friend who always works nights (she’s an A&E nurse) and seems to cope quite well… Not easy, but it’s true, in some jobs it can’t be helped.

    Like

    1. I have seen hospital doctors shattered by on-call weekends, followed by a full week at work. Like everyone working unsocial hours in the NHS, it seems crazy to force those conditions on staff who are often making crucial decisions about care and treatment.
      The permanent night staff coped much better, it seemed. One week on, then a week off. They usually adjusted well, and many did that for their entire careers.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  4. I get you πŸ™‚

    I think organising a social life around early shifts is harder in London than elsewhere. I worked early and late shifts (but not nights) in London for about two years and was amazed how late evening appointments would be there. It seemed most other people weren’t ready to go out until 8:30 pm or later, which was far too late for someone who needed to be up before six the following morning. Here in rural Somerset folks seem to operate a somewhat earlier timetable!

    I stopped this kind of employment when the children were born, but things continued to be complicated by the fact that my husband was working in the oil industry. In theory, this was on a 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off basis. However, the reality was that we never knew from one month to the next when he would be home or when away. I remember my policeman brother announcing at one point that we needed to book with him months in advance if we wanted to see him – something we simply couldn’t do. Advance planning of any kind was impossible.

    The backwards and forwards lifestyle didn’t seem to bother my husband overly much. He thrived on the contrast between his two different lives. However, I found his absences really hard, especially when the children were small. It wasn’t really compatible with having three children in three years!

    It all came to an end when my youngest was about seven and I collapsed with the ME/CFS. Whether or how much the previous stress was a factor in this will probably never be known.

    Like

    1. I can well imagine how your husband got used to his routine, in the same way that it brought you down, Ros. Your policeman brother was correct in his request. Working for the police (as I did for twelve years) brings a whole new level of shift-work pressures.
      ‘Two different lives’ is the ideal way of explaining the problem.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When Nissa and Josef were still kids, I only got three hours of broken sleep every day except on weekends. And when you’re at work, you often worry that they were left behind with just two minders who are not even your relatives.

    My son is working for an American bank and they change schedule more often based on clients’ need. They don’t local clients, all are based abroad so they have to adjust to the time difference.

    Like

    1. Modern employers seem to care a lot less for their staff, and pander to the requirements of the business and their customers at the cost of staff welfare. At least my rota only followed a set pattern, and rarely changed.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Depressingly accurate Pete. I doubt I even spent half a life in the real world. I sometimes feel strangely cheated by a lifestyle of my own choosing, but we three lived a life less ordinary and were repaid with walk on roles to some significant moments in British history. I guess medals and slippers can’t be worn at the same time!

    Like

    1. It is interesting that one family chose the same path in life, without external pressures or mutual influence. One aspect of shift work I didn’t touch on (the post was already too long) was how it was virtually impossible to meet up with family, friends, or partners who also did shifts. ‘Ships passing’ springs to mind. One leaving for work, as the other arrives home. One cousin on a weekend off, the other on three lates, etc.
      We exchanged domestic life for those occasional moments of memory, never really knowing if that was the right thing to do.
      Love from Norfolk. Pete. x

      Like

      1. My only saving grace when I worked shifts in the Police was that I was single with no kids, though being in Scotland also meant I was far away from family as well, which was hard. So my shift colleagues became my surrogate family, and we planned our social lives around our days off. However, being in Edinburgh in the late 80’s meant opportunities for a 24-hour social life – finish at 10 pm, then pub or club and home at 3 am. Finish night-shift at 6 am, then pub at 6.03 am and bed at 10 am. There’s a pattern forming, isn’t there!
        I may moan about it from time to time but I have never regretted having lived it. Pure adrenalin, utter despair, and some life-long friendships. Ironically, we now look back at those days as the ‘Golden Years of Policing’!
        I was there, man!
        Medals and slippers can be worn at the same time! You just have to earn the slippers, as we all have.
        PS. My mind still thinks my body is on ‘nights’!

        Like

        1. I believe that we all did our jobs at the best time, before too much political correctness and the nanny state swept away all the decision-making, and not least most of the fun too!
          I thought about pinning my medal on my sheepskin bootees, but it would have made a hole!
          Cheers, Pete. x

          Like

  7. The best thing about our move out of the rat race is to be a slave to nothing more than sun, I’m happy with waking up at 5:30 now the sun greets me and I’m even happier to work whilst it shines, which is until about 7pm at the moment. I’ll rest in the winter πŸ™‚
    Hats off to anyone who does shift work, especially the services who are true unsung heros.
    I did a spell of midnight to midday shifts for a logistics company for about three months, it may have only been a four day week, but the three that you had free were no good to man nor beast as your body tried to adjust. Living a couple of miles from an airport didn’t hep either πŸ™‚ Never again!

    Like

    1. One of the things that is often forgotten is how useless the days off are. Seeing a four-day break in a rota looks good, until you realise that you will be in bed for the first one, and going to bed very early on the last. You then have two and a bit days to fit everything in, before you return to work for up to seven or eight more shifts. Midday to midnight has to be one of the worst possible shifts too.
      Cheers, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Very interesting post, Pete. I’ve always been full of admiration and respect for people who opt – and manage – to do those kind of jobs. Where would we be without them?

    Like

    1. I was 27 when I started, ML, and up to then, had never given a moment’s thought to how everything got done, by people working around the clock. I soon learned respect for them all, from power station employees, to sewage workers, making modern life possible.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. And I was for 20 years an Op.Theatre Sister, doing on calls, and night shifts, later and early. I hated most the ‘split shifts’ where I’d go in at 7.30am finish at 12, go back at 4 and finish at 8! My hubby is an Op Theatre technician, or ODP as they’re called now, and this week he’s on night shift. He has a great routine, no phone plugged in, window shut, BIG notice on door- “Do not knock – leave parcels in green box in garden” very dark curtains and a glass of whisky before he goes to bed. He falls asleep at 9, gets up at 5 and says he sleeps better than when he’s on days πŸ™‚ We are lucky not to live in a very noisy place which helps.

    I think when you’re retired, the beauty of it is you can totally dispense with ‘normal’ whatever that is. Just listen to your body, sleep when you need to, eat when you’re hungry and do what you want. I think that’s a fine normal to have and one I’m looking forward to πŸ™‚

    Like

    1. You get it completely, FR. As an former nurse, and ODP, both you and your husband are well-aware of the toll that shift-work takes, and in a similar ‘industry’ too! At least I never had to work split-shifts. You were welcome to those. (Mind you, they are the routine on London Underground, and Buses too.)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Nicholas. I had hinted about the shifts before, but your post made me expand those thoughts into this one.
      Inspiration from an excellent writer!
      Best wishes, Pete. (Sorry for the delay, this got ‘lost’ in Spam…)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pete, that was an excellent article. It sounds like a very rough life, and few people will envy it. As for me, I’ve mostly worked traditional schedules, but have also had jobs with varied daytime schedules (starting as early as 6 am and finishing as late as 10:30 pm) spread out over a full seven-day week, as well as consistent graveyard, swing, and day schedules where the only exception was also working holidays. For various reasons, I’ve had a good many jobs in life, both in Missouri and in Nevada. I would always stick with a job or field of employment as long as I could (the longest being 11 years), but some didn’t endure for more than a day or two. It’s for that reason that my resume looks like an amalgam of several people’s work histories, and why I’ve experienced a wide range of work schedules. I’m just glad to be retired now! I do think that a fluctuating schedule like the one you had can be the root cause of health issues in one’s later years. On the other hand, you can now assume a “normal” life, and appreciate it for what it is. For example, I would assume you sleep more soundly now, that your biorhythms are finally “steady as she goes,” and that you are less easily upset by the vicissitudes that life inevitably throws in our path.

    Like

    1. David, from what you say, it seems as if you are pretty much aware of the problems associated with shifts. For me, the issue is trying to get back to what is considered to be normal. (And not really succeeding) That’s why we often have transatlantic ‘conversations’ during the night for me, and the early morning for you.
      Even after four years, my body refuses to adjust to anything that night be regarded as ‘normal.’
      Best wishes, and thanks for the interesting comment. Pete.

      Like

  11. The effects don’t bear thinking about. It’s bad enough doing a play i.e. rehearsing one play during the day and performing another in the evening. I always had trouble adjusting to normal sleep patterns when the job finished but it doesn’t compare to any of you or your fellow workers and the extraordinary and dedicated work you do. All credit to you for sticking with it, Pete. x

    Like

    1. Thanks, Sarah. The Theatre is not dissimilar though. Spending your working hours during the leisure time of those you are entertaining can be equally frustrating, I have no doubt.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

All comments welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s