Traditional 8-to-5 business hours don’t apply to the City of Houston or many of its employees.
Crime, fires and weather emergencies never take a vacation. Airports don’t go on hiatus, and parks and libraries don’t close on weekends. Sewers, streets and traffic lights are always on duty. When the city is open for business, which is always, thousands of city employees are working too — evenings, nights and weekends — to keep things running.
Even though we work in a 24-hour service industry, the human body needs time to rest. So, what happens when your job interferes with your sleep schedule?
Shift Work Sleep Disorder is common among people who work rotating, evening and night shifts. Those work schedules disrupt the circadian rhythms, or 24-hour sleep cycles, of about 25 percent of shift workers nationwide, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That includes thousands of city employees from dozens of job classifications.
Shift Work Sleep Disorder can impact safety and work performance, and it can also take a physical, emotional and social toll. But sleep experts suggest there are ways to mitigate effects of the disorder.
“More than half of people who work night shifts report excessive sleepiness during their shift and difficulty falling asleep during the day,” said Dr. Puneet Patni, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at Kelsey-Seybold. “The misalignment of your natural sleep-wake cycle affects some people more profoundly than others, and some people struggle to adjust throughout their careers. But making changes to your routines, health and environment can make a difference.”
Benefits Pulse asked city employees to share their experiences working the night shift. Responses revealed that night-shift workers may earn a little extra pay, but the night shift requires discipline and a willingness to make some personal and professional sacrifices.
Health and public safety professionals expect to work irregular hours, but firefighters’ schedules are in a category of their own. HFD firefighters work 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, and five days off. And many firefighters work additional jobs on their days off.
HFD Station 8 is among the largest and busiest in the city, answering an average of 10 to 15 calls a night, or 15-20 runs for EMS teams.
“It’s hard to explain it to someone who’s not in the profession, but imagine being woken from a dead sleep five to 10 times a night; having to get dressed and out the door in seconds; driving a 50,000-pound vehicle down the street to possibly save lives,” said Station 8 Captain David Paige, who has been a firefighter for 13 years. “It’s just part of the job, so nobody complains. But it’s a very physically demanding job, and we don’t get the sleep that is necessary to recover. You see a lot of firefighters with different lingering injuries, high blood pressure and heart disease. The demands of the job are stressful and it affects us long term.”
Paige said catching up on sleep on days off is challenging, but it is the key to recovery, even with other professional and family obligations.
“My wife is a nurse and she used to work night shifts, so she is very understanding of my schedule,” Paige said. “When I come home from work she allows me to go back to sleep, closes the door, takes care of kids, doesn’t let them wake me.”
Patni said modifying environmental factors play a significant role for shift workers trying to sleep during the day. Exposure to sunlight stimulates the pineal gland, which produces serotonin, the hormone that wakes you up; darkness triggers a surge in melatonin, which helps you fall asleep.
“When your shift ends, you should avoid exposure to daylight and wear sunglasses on the way to your car,” Putni said. “When you get home, minimize light exposure with black-out curtains. Keep your room cool – between 65 and 72 degrees is the optimum temperature. As your body gives off heat, it helps you fall asleep and stay asleep.”
But some employees said that is easier said than done. They’ve tried all the tricks, but they still struggle to get restful sleep during daylight hours.
Dana Growden, a Houston Airport System landside operations supervisor, said he worked daytime shifts for 18 years in previous jobs. When he started his career with the city, however, he was assigned to the third shift, 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Shift assignments were based on seniority. Growden paid his dues as a new employee. He was recently moved to a daytime shift and couldn’t be happier, he said.
“I tried getting darkened curtains, using ear plugs and a face mask, I drank sleepy time tea. But I could not sleep during the day with phones ringing, lawn mowers, trash trucks and everything else going on,” Growden said. “At best, I would get a series of two hour naps. After a while, sleep deprivation physically, mentally and emotionally drains you. I know some people prefer to work third shift, but they can have it.”
Conversely, Jericho Leftwich said he enjoyed working nights when he was a paramedic. These days, Leftwich is a public health investigator supervisor for the Houston Health Department, but he still considers himself a night owl.
“I actually prefer working at night. I find it more peaceful and less stressful,” Letwich said. “I’m not a morning person, so it takes me a little longer to get myself together. By mid-morning I can fully function, and my thoughts and ideas are more fleshed out during the night hours.”
Kimberly Chavez is a rookie firefighter at HFD Station 8. On the job less than a year, Chavez said diet, exercise and focusing on the big picture help her stay awake on shift, and fall asleep at home.
“I don’t think you can train your body or really ever adjust to the schedule, but I’ve learn how to run on an empty tank. That’s what is expected of you, and other people are depending on you, so that motivates you to do your job beyond well,” Chavez said.
She watches her diet and avoids eating foods that make her sleepy during her shift.
“Some of these guys give me a hard time about the things I eat, but I think the cleaner you eat, the better you feel, and the better you sleep,” Chavez said. “When I have a hard time falling asleep on my off days, I work out twice a day — one workout in morning in m
y gear at the Fire Academy, and then CrossFit® at night, so I wear myself out well enough to get to sleep at night.”
Patni advises shift workers to eat frequent but smaller, lighter meals and snacks to stay awake through night shifts.
“It’s the same for people who work during the day. You’re going to feel sluggish after a heavy lunch,” Patni said. “At night, it’s especially important. If you eat a heavy, fatty meal with lots of carbohydrates and sugar, you are more likely to have a rapid drop in your energy. Space your meals out and keep it light to sustain energy at night.”
William Bentley is a Municipal Courts security officer. He works from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but his sleep disorders make it challenging to stay awake day or night.
“I have sleep apnea and narcolepsy, which is a misunderstood condition. It just means that I fall asleep very quickly in comfortable situations,” Bentley said. “Since I am in a safety-critical position, I know I cannot doze off, even if I have a medical excuse. I could sit down during my shift, but I try to stand up and walk around the courtroom when I can.”
Working the night shift is a necessity for many employees – somebody’s got to do it – but Patni said employers can lessen the effects of Shift Work Sleep Disorder with careful scheduling. Ideally, employees who work safety critical jobs that require sustained vigilance should work shorter shifts, or have the opportunity for breaks or naps. He also advises having a system of redundancy, or cross training, to give shift workers a break.
“It’s easier for the body to adapt to a constant schedule as opposed to rotating schedules,” Patni said. “But if it’s necessary, it’s best to rotate the schedule forward gradually – day to evening to night, not the reverse.”