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!