You know the drill. Every evening, as the moon comes out to greet the night, you take your packed lunch and place it in your work bag. You brush your hair, splash your face with water, and put on your shoes and jacket. Then, you get in the car or hop on the bus and head straight to work.
At least, that’s the drill if you work the graveyard shift.
Millions of Americans, from truck drivers to nurses, earn their living under cover of night. Our world doesn’t stop turning once the sun goes down, and the members of society’s after-dark workforce keep things moving while the rest of the city gets some shut-eye.
Of course, given humans’ natural sleep cycles, working through the night isn’t exactly “normal.” In fact, it takes serious effort to minimize the mental and physical toll associated with the graveyard shift. Equipped with the knowledge that overnight schedules can throw our health for a loop, we wanted to examine the macro-level health effects of burning the midnight oil, both on our bodies and minds.
Read on to learn more about how the graveyard shift influences sleep cycles, friendships, family time, overall happiness, and more.
For our respondents, working the graveyard shift was more often a matter of necessity than a choice: 55 percent worked evenings and nights due to circumstance, while 45 percent did so as a choice.
Being on the clock while the rest of the city is fast asleep might sound like a bum deal, but night shifts actually do come with perks: If you appreciate serene sunrises and enjoy the feeling of being part of a tight-knit community, this type of work might just be for you.
However, working the graveyard shift isn’t always a sustainable lifestyle. Thirty-three percent of evening workers said they were currently looking for a job that offered regular hours, while another 31 percent were planning on looking or hoping to look for one in the future. Another 36 percent weren’t in the market for a change.
When you first start out at an overnight job, expect the adjustment period to last for about three and a half months. More than 1 in 4 survey respondents, however, reported they still hadn’t adjusted to their unconventional schedule. Here’s how to stack the odds for a successful transition in your favor.
If one thing is certain, it’s that the graveyard shift has a way of severely interfering with people’s sleep schedules. Firstly, night workers got less sleep than the general population overall, at six hours and 12 minutes per 24-hour cycle.
They were also more than twice as likely to have trouble falling asleep, one and a half times more likely to have issues staying asleep, and wake up feeling rested one and a half fewer days per week, on average, than the general population.
Aside from sleep struggles, working overnight can take a mental health toll that extends far beyond counting fewer sheep: One particular study that focused on hospital workers linked graveyard shifts to increased stress and decreased well-being. Overnight workers experienced similarly negative effects on their mental health, which we’ll touch on in a few paragraphs.
For many people, a strong social life is the foundation of health for other aspects of one’s life. One recent study found that fewer social connections led to poorer health, as well as physical ailments like inflammation and hypertension depending on the socially-isolated individual’s age.
In the world of night shifts, 67 percent of employees reported they spent less time with their friends as a result of their job. One-quarter noticed no significant difference, and just eight percent said they ended up being more social while working the graveyard shift. Given that science has already established an important link between socialization and overall health, this puts quite a large portion of overnight workers at risk of decreased life satisfaction.
Unsurprisingly, these sentiments led to fairly bleak outlooks about night shift workers’ social situations: 55 percent of respondents said their social lives were made worse by their working hours, while another 37 percent observed no effect. A lucky eight percent found night shifts actually made their social lives better. This means that on a nearly universal scale, people working overnight are chronically undersocialized.
Children demand a lot of attention, and the constant presence of a stay-at-home parent can actually alter your baby’s brain chemistry for the better – all thanks to the unique strain of love, devotion, and care that only a parent can provide.
Missing out on chunks of your child’s life due to work can take a significant mental toll, and that struggle is not reserved solely for night shift workers: In the U.S., a majority of mothers and fathers (56 and 50 percent respectively) reported having difficulty balancing their work and family life. Being a parent is tough enough, but working overnight presents additional challenges. For example, if one’s partner or spouse works a standard schedule while they work the graveyard shift, there might not be much opportunity to tackle challenges as a cohesive unit.
For graveyard shift employees who also had children, 47 percent regretted how their job affected their family life. Nearly half of those same respondents said they spent less time with their kids than they would with standard work hours; however, another quarter reported that they ended up with more quality parenting time as a result of their schedule. With their daytime hours freed up, that might lend to involved activities like driving the kids to school or playing with them during the afternoon.
Given that both sleep deprivation and social isolation can lead to mental health issues, it’s no wonder that a population that is disproportionately exposed to these two realities reported such elevated levels of mental unrest: 60 percent of late-night workers said their schedule had a negative effect on their emotional wellness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Health Interview Survey, 86 and 89 percent of the general population never experience feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, respectively. Sentiment among the graveyard shift workers surveyed was much more bleak. Just 36 percent said they never felt hopeless, compared to a quarter who felt that way “a little of the time” and 27 percent who did “some of the time.”
Feelings of worthlessness were slightly less prevalent but remained sky-high for overnight workers compared to the general population. While just 4 percent of standard-schedule employees felt worthless “some of the time,” that number spiked to 18 percent among graveyard shift workers. The same was true for people who felt worthless “a little of the time”: 5 percent of the general population versus 23 percent of the overnight population.
The mental toll that often goes hand in hand with the graveyard shift is clear – but what about the physical side of after-hours labor? The effects of working nights did indeed have physical ramifications, as reported by two-thirds of our respondents. We decided to measure that toll on the body as a function of how frequently our surveyed population felt “everything was an effort” and compared that to the CDC’s data for the same question.
The majority of average Americans (70 percent) reported never feeling that way, compared to just 13 percent of graveyard shift employees. Another 25 percent of night workers said they felt “everything was an effort” a little of the time (more than twice as much as the general population), and 35 percent felt that way some of the time (more than three times as much as the general population).
Indeed, the graveyard shift’s physical toll can be far-reaching: It has been linked to an elevated risk of certain cancers, metabolic issues, heart disease, obesity, and the disruption of both metabolism and appetite.
It’s clear that working the graveyard shift can affect an individual’s mental health, physical well-being, and the quality of their sleep for the worse. This, of course, begs the question: Are there any upsides to this type of work?
A possible answer: money. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they earned extra money as an incentive to take on overnight shifts – and despite the laundry list of sacrifices that come along with this type of work, 74 percent of those people said the extra money was well worth it.
It All Starts With a Good Night’s Sleep
No matter the challenges and hardships of working the graveyard shift, a surprisingly large percentage of respondents (just shy of half) occupied their role by choice as opposed to circumstance. We can hypothesize that a big draw for these types of jobs is money, as evidenced by the large majority of overnight workers earning extra pay – but the financial perks of late-night work come at their own cost.
Those working the night shift got less sleep – and lower-quality sleep – than the general population, spent less time with their friends, spent less time with their children than normal, experienced more frequent feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and felt their job took a toll on their physical health. Of course, not all respondents felt this way about their schedule: Some said the graveyard shift had a positive effect on their social life, for example, although they were a small minority.
Whether your bedtime is 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., you deserve the best mattress. At BMB, we’re passionate about finding the perfect mattress for any situation, and we can help you discover the best products for outfitting your bedroom to optimize your sleep quality, regardless of when you decide to catch some shut eye.
Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 495 people whose only or most common work schedule was the overnight shift, typically between the hours of 11pm and 7am. To ensure we only included responses from individuals who took our survey seriously, individuals who passed an attention check were included in the data. Our respondents ranged in age from 18 to 66 with an average age of 33.5. The average annual salary of our respondents was $42,529. 218 of our respondents were male, 275 were female, and two respondents did not identify as either.
For references to the average American population, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2017 National Health Interview Survey were used for comparison. For all comparisons, our respondents were asked identical questions to those in the CDC survey.
Some questions and answers have been condensed or rephrased for clarity. Not all percentages may add up to 100 percent; this is due either to rounding or to responses of “uncertain, neutral, and not applicable,” among others, not being included in the visualizations. These data are intended to be used for entertainment purposes only. These data rely on self-reporting, and no statistical testing has been performed on the findings.
Fair Use Statement
We didn’t stay up all night working on this study, but we did put a lot of time into it; so if you’d like to share our findings for any noncommercial purpose, please feel free to do so. All we ask for attribution is that you link back to the full study on this page.