Managing a mental condition can be challenging for anyone, but working a shift outside the typical 9-5 Monday-Friday can make it even more difficult.
Mental health conditions, along with shift work, impact other areas of wellness. That’s one of the guiding principles behind the DBSA Wellness Wheel. Symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder can negatively impact your physical wellness by interfering with your sleep, nutrition, and energy levels. Mental health symptoms can also impact your social wellness by making it more challenging to build and keep relationships.
Just as mental health conditions can affect your physical and social wellness, the reverse is also true. For example, not getting enough sleep or getting into an argument with a loved one can negatively impact your mental health. Shift work can add even more challenges to finding and maintaining physical and social wellness.
Two members of DBSA’s Young Adult Council discuss their experiences with shift work and share the tips and tricks they have learned along the way.
Olivia: I started working night shift in my first full-time job after graduating from college. It was made more difficult by the fact that my work schedule included 12-hour shifts from Friday night to Saturday morning, and Saturday night to Sunday morning. When I first started working, I was very focused on maintaining a strict sleeping schedule; I quickly found myself missing out on family dinners, visits with my nephews, and video calls with college friends.
I eventually realized it was important to balance my need for sleep with my need for socializing. Sometimes I would wake up a little early on Saturdays to visit with family and feel a little more tired than usual at work that night. I found that for me, time to socialize was better for my mental health than the alternative: isolation.
On my days off, I will sometimes split my sleep. Instead of sleeping all day and staying awake at night, I will take a short nap in the morning and another nap in the evening. Working night shifts was initially very isolating for me, but I have been able to adjust over the past eight months. Of course, I still feel like I miss out on a lot but I am better able to strike a balance between my physical and mental/social health.
MJ: I also tweaked my schedule to spend time with friends. I lived with my girlfriend while I worked a night shift. She worked a 9-to-5 job an hour away from our home, so a few days each week, I’d get home after she was asleep, and she left for work before I woke up. It started to take a toll on my mental health, and I was afraid that it could start to affect our relationship. We set time aside on our days off for each other. I worked Sunday-Wednesday, and she worked weekdays, so we each kept our Saturdays free for time together. We would each be a little more flexible with our waking schedules as well; I would go to bed a little earlier, and she’d sleep in a little more. Luckily, my shifts weren’t 12 hours long, nor were they the exact opposite of her schedule, so we were able to adjust our waking hours.
I used the time I spent walking to or from the subway on my way to work to catch up with friends and family. It was right after most of them finished work (around 5-6pm), and we could talk 20-30 minutes about our days, and whatever else was on our minds. It ended up being a really nice routine to maintain those relationships, and a way for me to start my bar shift energized and in a good mood.
Filling Time on Nights Off
Olivia: I found it very important to find a hobby to fill my nights off, because my sleep-wake schedule was so different from most of my friends’ and family members’. Differing schedules prevented me from being able to randomly ask a friend to grab a coffee or go on a walk. I have a personality that appreciates accomplishing goals, so I really enjoy reading, doing crafts, learning a new language using an app on my phone, and working jigsaw puzzles. With that being said, I still needed to take nights “off” (like most people would during the weekend) to relax and reset.
In my experience, it is important to recognize the needs of my roommates. I live with two other people who both work day shifts. I try my best to avoid upsetting their sleep schedules, which would impact their wellbeing and mine by extension. Having roommates limits what I can do on my nights off, but there are still plenty of options to fill my time.
MJ: My schedule was brutal: I had a triple shift every weekend, and then another day of work right after. (Ironically I chose this schedule… four day weekends sounded worth it. It was questionable.) I was so exhausted by the end of my work week that I usually needed at least a day of very low energy activity or naps to recover. It took some time and discipline to find hobbies and projects. I enjoyed working on independent animation projects, cooking, and baking. It took me a few weeks to allow myself self-care days to recharge without feeling guilty. Sometimes all I had energy for was binging hours of television and movies, but sometimes that was exactly what I needed.
Olivia: I try to be gentle with myself. I eat “breakfast” foods when I want and “dinner” foods when I want. Ten months into working night shifts, I still have not found a consistent eating schedule. I remind myself that I am operating on a schedule that my body is not built for. I make an effort to include a lot of food groups each day (fruits, vegetables, dairy, carbs, and proteins) and to change up what I include from each group. For the first few months, I fell into a pattern of eating the same things over and over again. I made the same recipes week after week on my days off and packed the same frozen meal day after day on my job. Now, I am more conscious about adding variety to my diet.
MJ: My work shift was from 6 p.m. until 1 or 2 a.m., so I’d wake up in the late morning and eat two big meals in the day before my shift. I’d also make sure to drink a lot of water before I started work, because there could always be spells of 3-4 hours where you don’t get a break longer than a few moments. However, since I worked in a bar and restaurant, when work got hectic, it was typically expected. During slow periods, usually between mealtimes, my coworkers and I would cover work for each other so we could make ourselves some coffee, or get a snack.
Olivia: Maintaining an exercise routine is important for me, because I sometimes feel like I get “out of touch” with my body working night shifts. Additionally, regular exercise plays an important role in my mental wellness. In college, I was used to working out in the afternoon after class ended, then spending several hours doing homework, cooking, and visiting with friends. When I began working full-time, I quickly learned that working out close to bedtime wasn’t beneficial, and adjusted my workout to when I wake up, around 8 p.m. It became easier to fall asleep, and exercising when I woke up helped energize me for work.
Another major adjustment I had to make upon graduating was becoming more forgiving of myself if I skipped a day of working out. I learned to understand that, for me, a good night of rest is just as important as a good workout.
MJ: Transitioning to a nighttime schedule was definitely tough the first few weeks, because I still was trying to wake up early and essentially was only depriving myself of sleep. Drinking water and being more forgiving with myself with how much I did in a day helped me get to a more sustainable schedule for my body and mind. After a few weeks on the job, I learned I was physically exhausted after my double and triple shifts, so I planned my exercise in advance around that. I made sure that I focused on eating well and getting good sleep before the difficult long days.
As both Olivia and MJ’s stories show, there is a learning curve for adjusting to shift work. It is important to note that the path to wellness is different for everybody; there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and it may take a while to find the right routine for your mental health. Pay attention to what improves your mental and physical wellbeing, and allow for extra rest and hydration during transitions. Prioritize activities that promote your wellness, and don’t be afraid to try new things to find the best routine for you!