Body Rhythms Are No Laughing Matter |

Originally posted at

crashed car
I recently took a job noted to be "second shift charge nurse." Fine, right? I have been self-employed, a 7p-7a nightshifter, or a second-shifter for my entire adult working life. The only time in that period that I had to get up early and be functional was the 3 years I spent in nursing school, and those were dark times.

It turned out that "charge nurse" was closer to "DON" and I needed to be there on all shifts, at least temporarily, so that has included two first shifts per week. It sounded good in theory. Of course someone needs to observe what is going on on all shifts, right?

This killed me. It took 3 days to make me tired in a way I've never been tired before: tired to where I wondered if I could make it home safely. I've repeatedly commuted after successive 12-hour night shifts and been fine, but two 8-hour first shifts in a row rendered me an un--fully reanimated zombie. We're talking swerving and actually thinking "I could close my eyes for just a second" tired.

The powers that be decided I would not be doing that anymore. Contracts were cited, and I don't know whether a pale, confused charge nurse contributed at all to this decision, but my days of having to get up at 4am have ended. Working first shift one day and third shift the next gave me time to rest up, and by "rest up" I mean "sleep for 17 hours getting up only to use the bathroom." I felt nauseated. I felt tortured.

And once again I dug up previously traveled thought pathways: are the studies on the perils of night shift directed toward people who prefer to work those shifts, or are they done on people who work them to "put in their time" and similar? Similarly, if you work shifts that your body prefers, are you still putting yourself in danger of an early death, cancer, and all the woe and doom that these studies predict will befall you?

Finally, I thought, as my head hit the pillow (a feeling which, at that time, had to be better than any drug could produce), "Thank God I'm a nurse and have the opportunity to choose jobs that give me options." What if I were an accountant or just about anything else? Most of the world has to be at work at 8am. Granted, that's better than the 6am or 7am that nursing requires for day shift, but corporations don't say, "Would you rather work overnight?"

Maybe they should. Maybe there should be a massive culture change in which the working world realizes that one size does not fit all with circadian rhythms and health-promoting sleep schedules. I've talked to the morning people I know, and I do know a very few, and the dead-tired "run off the road" exhaustion I described to them fit their experiences of having to stay up very late.

Maybe we should stop just assuming that night shift will cause an early death and awful chronic diseases and study instead the personality and physical characteristics that both healthy and sick night shifters possess.

However, there is no "maybe" about this: I am grateful that I work in a profession that allows me to choose jobs that support my best performance by allowing me to sleep and be awake during the times I function best.