Nothing To Lose Sleep Over

How to survive the graveyard shift

By Lindsey Norris / Illustrations by Kathryn Macnaughton


Who knew that Jay Leno could be as bad for you as asbestos? A year ago, the World Health Organization declared that shift work is “possibly or probably carcinogenic to humans.” That was bad news for the roughly 3.3 million sunlight-deprived Canadians who work night shifts, split shifts, rotating shifts or are on call. Though a nine-to-five workaday routine and limited late-night television may sound like a monotonous rut, there are definite health benefits to sleeping regular.

Shift work disrupts the physiological system that regulates hormone production, including melatonin, which can suppress tumour growth. Moreover, exposure to light reduces melatonin production. So if you’re awake when you should be sleeping and sleeping when it’s light out, you’re messing with stuff that shouldn’t be messed with. And if the spectre of cancer wasn’t scary enough, insufficient sleep also increases your risk of depression, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Every living creature needs to sleep, even fruit flies and dolphins, which swim while snoozing. Depriving rats of sleep will kill them faster than depriving them of food. Anyone who has ever been sleep deprived knows it can’t be healthy. Anyone – that is to say, everyone – who has ever worked, studied or partied too hard, or crossed multiple time zones, or neurotically pondered a job offer into the wee hours, knows this. The signs are instantly recognizable: just look for the guy with bags the size of totes under his eyes who harbours daydreams of shooting Fluffy, the neighbour’s barking dog.

Not that shift workers have exclusivity on exhaustion: “the more we work, the less we sleep,” concludes a 2008 Statistics Canada report. If you work full time, you’ll sleep 24 minutes less each night than your unemployed buddy. Over a year, that’s about 150 hours. It gets worse: if you earn more than $60,000, you’ll sleep 40 minutes less each night than people who earn less than $20,000. Folks who commute an hour or more every day sleep 22 minutes less than those with commutes under half an hour. And singles get more sleep than married people.

Stress; snoring spouses; kids; deadlines; customer demands. Not so long ago stores were closed on Sundays. Today, a business that offers around-the-clock service has the market advantage. In the corporate world, eight hours of sleep is tantamount to laziness; it’s a badge of honour to be so busy and important that sleep takes second fiddle. It would be easy to blame our 24/7 culture, but sleep has always come second to productivity. The slave labourers who built Egypt’s Great Pyramid certainly didn’t get seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night. Britain’s Factory Act, passed in 1802, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, stated that the work hours of children must begin after 6 a.m., end before 9 p.m. and not exceed 12 hours a day. In the mid-1800s, it was still legal for children under 18 to work 63 hours a week, a far cry from the 37.5 standard in Canada today. And if you think today’s suits work harder than they did 50 years ago, just watch an episode of Mad Men.

Lack of sleep doesn’t just make you grumpy; it could make you a criminal. “If you deprive someone of sleep for long enough, even for 23 hours, and test their level of reaction while driving, their scores will be lower than someone who has exceeded the legal blood alcohol limit,” says Dr. Charles Samuels, a Calgary physician and sleep researcher.University of Pennsylvania researchers found that sleeping less than six hours a night for a two-week period affected cognitive performance as much as two nights of complete sleep deprivation.

Cognitive performance is a fancy term for critical thinking. Harvard prof Robert Stickgold once described it this way: students who stay awake all night to cram for an exam will do just fine, as long as that exam only tests how well they’ve memorized simple facts, like a list of Canada’s prime ministers. But if that test requires making connections – an essay, say, on who was a better prime minister, Trudeau or Diefenbaker–  the student is in for trouble. Maybe those accountants at Enron were just sleepy, not dirty.

Perhaps research like this will lead to changes in corporate culture. Already, several spas and “sleep boutiques” in the U.S. teach insomniacs how to sleep, and New Yorkers can go to the Yelo salon and pay $40 for a 20-minute nap. Google, arguably one of the most progressive companies in the world, has “nap pods” for its sleepy employees. They may be onto something. At the end of a shift, it’s your work that speaks to your abilities, not the face time you’ve logged at the office. Here are a couple of night owls (and an early riser) who’ve learned the hard way that getting more shut-eye is a good career move.

Sleep Trader

skytrain“I quit coffee cold turkey. But I’m not a total teatotaller. Sometimes on Sundays I treat myself and have a decaf.”

Think your 7:30 a.m. breakfast meetings are early? Consider the story of reformed night owl SCOTT MACAUSLAND. This stock trader at Vancouver’s Global Securities Corporation had to give up concerts and coffee to survive his early morning wake-up call. But for the right job, he says, it’s worth it: “I live in Vancouver and operate on New York time. To be at work before the Toronto and New York stock exchanges open, I’m awake around 4:30 a.m. and at work before 5:30 a.m. Fortunately, we live close to the SkyTrain; I can be at work in 20 minutes.

“You wouldn’t know it to see me now, but I used to be a night owl. I hated mornings. I worked in the restaurant industry, so I’d work until two in the morning, get home, have a drink and a pot of coffee, and go to bed around five.

“About a year ago, I quit drinking coffee. I figured, hey, my fiancé made it through vet school without ever having a cup of coffee – I should be able to do it, too. So I went cold turkey. It was hard. There’s a Starbucks right on the corner and I walk by it every day. Sometimes on Sundays I treat myself and have a decaf. But I’m not a total teetotaller. Today, for instance, I’m operating on four hours of sleep; I flew in from Regina last night. Damn the torpedoes – I’m having coffee.

“But it’s worth it. I was never able to nap before. Now I can come home and sleep for a bit and still make it to concerts. Though one night I went to see Metric. It was a Sunday night at the Commodore. The warm-up band didn’t get off the stage until 11:30 p.m. It was insane. I couldn’t stay and see Metric –
I just couldn’t do it.

“So you might say my job has killed my night life. I still go out, but to pubs, not clubs. I like the mornings now. It’s quieter. I avoid the rush-hour traffic both ways. I eat lunch at 10 a.m.; the food court is always empty. I get off at 1:30 p.m., get to spend more time with the dogs, more time by myself. They’re all little things, but it adds up. I really like my job. It’s worth missing a few concerts here and there.”

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