In the mid-2000s, when Travis graduated from high school in Michigan, he decided against racking up a lifetime of debt to go to college. Instead, he signed up for a temp service and took the first job that wasn’t retail: manufacturing. He was hired full-time and eventually climbed the ranks, going from from machine-operating temp to technician. But the promotion came with a caveat: Travis would have to work third shift.
Back then, he was a spry 20-year-old without a family. Working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. felt like an easy enough sacrifice while he looked for his next gig, so he committed to driving home opposite the morning commute and sleeping through the day. But that new opportunity never came. Suddenly, he was in his 30s, and he’d spent every night for the past decade in the factory.
Now 32, Travis laughs when he tries to remember if he ever “got used to” to working third shift. “Maybe it was when I grew fangs and started hanging upside down from the rafters,” he says. But in reality, his body never quite adjusted to the sleep schedule. He lived on catnaps, sleeping only a few hours at a time before a truck or lawnmower inevitably woke him up. “It’s not uncommon for third-shifters to sleep with ear plugs or a blindfold and use NyQuil as a sleep aid,” he says.
A Dead Social Life
Working overnight can be excruciatingly lonesome. That’s why many third-shifters congregate on the subreddit r/ThirdShift — a community for those “who need help getting through the night.” The community guidelines read, “Fuck karma, and fuck having all your submissions buried. We’re here for you. It doesn’t matter if you’re not really working. You could be up late studying, sick and can’t sleep, even depressed and need to talk. Post it all here.”
Of course, the memes help too.
“I feel like all the people I used to talk to or hang out with have disappeared,” writes redditor cbsmith432906. “I’m either asleep or working when people want to do things, and eventually they stop inviting you.”
Travis agrees. He’s missed out on countless dates and parties because of his hours. That said, when he was able to squeeze in an evening out, he “was pretty much guaranteed to be the last man standing at the end of the night.”
But those events were rare. Finding any overlapping time with first-shifters is a fool’s errand — unless you schedule time out well in advance. Redditor critterkitty says that she’ll wake up five hours before heading into work at 10 p.m. This way, she can hang out with her friends between 5 and 9.
Travis is able to see the moonlit silver lining. “The world is more peaceful at night,” he says, “and our ‘morning’ commute is better, so there’s that.” What’s more, many of his third-shift contemporaries appreciated overnight work for the time it afforded them with their kids, he says. “Even though they’d be getting off work and needing to go to sleep soon, some of my coworkers liked having the ability to be with their kids during the day. Some saved on daycare this way, no matter how sleep-deprived it made them. As their kids grew up, they were able to see their kids off to school and run errands.”
Others aren’t so lucky. Living in a house full of people on an opposite schedule leads to heartbreak and frustration. They want to spend time with their family, but they also need sleep.
But empty grocery stores and time with the kids can only go so far before the sleep deprivation catches up. Many people simply can’t readjust to a day shift. “Not sure if anyone else has experienced this, but I did overnights for about 14 years on and off,” writes one redditor in the subreddit r/nightshift. “Switched to days six months ago, and man, I just can’t do it. I’m heading back to overnights ASAP.”
Another describes the predicament of becoming so used to the night shift, they’re “scared” to leave it. “I have been working overnight for the majority of the last nine years,” writes shmagen88. “I’m in a position now to move back to days to advance my career but I’m so nervous.
Long-term third-shifters are also at risk of “shift work disorder,” a myriad of chronic illnesses from extended sleep deprivation, lack of sunshine and the laundry list of bad habits and diet that comes with the hours.
If you know or live with somebody working the graveyard shift, be mindful of their schedule before you call or knock, Travis advises. “Your noon is our midnight!”