Whether it be for a late night snack after a long night of partying or studying, or calling the police to handle an emergency in the wee hours of the morning, you’ve probably interacted with a third shift (loosely defined as work between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.) worker at some point in your life. But who actually takes the time to ponder the life of that person working at night serving you at 3 a.m.? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, three million Americans work the graveyard shift as a means of income.

Jonathan Kermah

For three months of my life, I worked third shift at Cumberland Farms during a financial rough patch that forced me to take a semester off from school. I quit the first chance I got. During my time working, I was constantly exhausted and often irritable. Even after leaving my night job, it took some time to recover to a normal sleep schedule. I would often find myself up at 5 a.m., as I was the night I came up with this as a story.

According to the Library of Congress, shift work can be traced back to at least the 1800s. Before labor unions attempted to limit work shifts to eight hours in 1866, factory owners could work their employees whenever and however long they wanted. Even after the union strikes of the time, working conditions remained pretty harsh until 1933, when Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act, which included minimum wage and maximum working hours.

With all of these working conditions put in place, incentive pay was also put in place for overtime work exceeding 40 hours per week. This resulted in the first, second, and third shift work schedule often seen today in the working world.

Working the third shift

Third shift at Cumberland Farms includes the responsibilities that are often done when stores close. Overnight workers are given a checklist and are expected to get all of it done while still assisting late night and early morning customers. If a bunch of drunk college kids come in at 3 a.m. wanting fried Mac and Cheese Bites, you drop everything you’re doing and make those Mac and Cheese Bites.

I reached out to the Cumberland Farms corporate offices to get their perspective on third shift working conditions, but they declined the interview.

Christa, a third shift Cumberland Farms worker (who asked we withhold her last name due to employment concerns), listed off her third shift responsibilities during our conversation on her smoke break late one night. “Let’s see. There’s the temp log that has to be done before midnight. There’s 12 pots of coffee that I have to clean. There’s the counters we have to clean. The drains we have to clean. The floors, we sweep and mop. Bathrooms definitely have to be sparkling. The ovens…”

For the sake of brevity, I cut her list short, but she’s also tasked with restocking coolers for hours at a time as well as manager duties. It should be noted that Christa is not a manager, but she has been working third shift at Cumberland Farms for over 13 years. The 39-year-old night owl has seen it all.

“One person died in our bathroom, in the men’s room,” she said.

While you might expect the store to close in a situation like this, only half the store was shut down when first responders arrived, according to Christa. Aside from the bridge between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Cumberland Farms is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. According to Christa, the only circumstances at which the store closes would be a fire or a robbery. She personally doesn’t work on Halloween — a robbery that took place a few years ago on a Halloween she worked still affects her to this day.

“I get really fearful around people who wear masks,” she said.

Twenty-two-year-old Cumberland Farms worker Daniel, who asked we withhold his last name due to employment concerns, hasn’t worked the night shift nearly as long as Christa but he’s dealt with some night time horror stories of his own.

“Fights have broken out. That’s happened multiple times. Most of the time they take it outside, I usually don’t try to get involved,” said Daniel. “There was one time someone was extremely drunk and being threatening to people in the parking lot and cornering and screaming at them. I had to go out and instigate because people were trapped in their car.”

In my own experience working nights, situations like these are not uncommon. While dealing with the madness that can occur when working at night, life outside of work can be just as miserable. Daniel and I discussed this on his break around 2 a.m.

Daniel, much like me, found himself in a financial rough patch, forcing him to drop out of college and enter the working world. While he was used to staying up pretty late, he wasn’t prepared for the difficulties that came with working from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. every night. Unlike Christa, Daniel’s sleep schedule didn’t improve over time — it got worse.

“I never know when I’m able to sleep. Sometimes I hit the hay right when I get home; sometimes it takes me until the afternoon. It’s just all over the place. Before it was at least relatively consistent; now its completely chaotic,” said Daniel.

Sleep wasn’t the only change he noticed when working overnights. He noticed himself drifting from friends and family.

“When I had a more normal schedule like first shift, I was able to see my friends a lot more. I was able to be a lot more connected to people close to me. Now it feels like I have to put a ridiculous amount of effort to maintain basic relationships,” said Daniel, “I can either see my friends who think that I’m dead or I can sleep and not be miserable at work.”

Fortunately for Daniel, he has a supportive girlfriend who is understanding of his unusual schedule. On days that he works, she will often come over to wake him up and check on him. But even with an understanding significant other, the overnight work can put a strain on the relationship.

“My girlfriend will call me, and I should be happy to hear from [her] but I’m so mad and I don’t know why,” said Daniel.

Daniel recognizes that a night job is not something he wants to make a career out of based on the duress of his more experienced coworkers. He sees the mental and physical damage taken from years of an inverted schedule.

“It’s a sobering reminder of why you need to get out and why you need to put in effort in making a better life for yourself,” said Daniel.

For Christa she prefers the overnights because she was sick of dealing with people when previously working at fast food chains.

If your everyday overnight workers were dealing with occasional robberies, what must first responders be seeing every night? And how is the duress affecting them? If a Cumberland Farms employee experiences duress, it’s generally not a life-or-death situation, but for a first responder, it might be.

24 hours of putting out fires

Firefighters and paramedics don’t work on the same schedule as most occupations. Instead of a seven-day work cycle, the Amherst firefighters work on an eight-day cycle that includes two 24-hour shifts with a day off in between, followed by five days off. According to the president of the Amherst Firefighters Local 1764 union, Matthew Sposito, that 24-hour rest period is sometimes interrupted by forced overtime.

“Based on our current staffing levels, there is a need for what’s known as a hold over, where the shift coming on in the morning is not up to the minimum of seven. So an individual from the previous shift needs to be held over against their will to maintain that staffing level,” said Sposito.

According to Amherst assistant town manager David Ziomek, they are aware of the Amherst fire department’s staffing issue.

“It is an active conversation, it is not new. Each year we’re assessing call volume and what towns we cover. We are no longer serving the town of Hadley, which is 20 percent of our call volume. We’ll be taking that into consideration as we look at many many months of responses to Amherst and responding towns as well as the universities,” said Ziomek.

Amherst firefighters can work for up to a maximum of 38 hours straight before being released. If their holdover occurs during their first shift, after working nearly 40 hours, their 24-hour rest period is cut down to 10 hours of recovery before having to return to work (which could end up being another holdover shift).

“It happens more frequently than I would like,” said Sposito.

Unlike most jobs, firefighters are given the opportunity to sleep on the job between the hours of 10 pm to 6 am. But that “sleep” is almost never quality sleep.

“During that time, we’re up for whatever call is going on. If additional resources are needed, the rest of the station comes out to help. It’s not significantly adequate rest. We’re mostly just trying to recharge the battery to be able to go provide care to the community.” said Sposito.

The Amherst Fire Department receives about 18 emergency calls per day, which averages out to a call every hour and 20 minutes. While firefighters and paramedics save lives everyday, they’re not superheroes. They’re still human, and fatigue can take a toll when working extended hours.

“Sometimes when you’re working at night, based on the amount of calls, you can end up getting into a cycle where your brain’s wanting to be in rest mode and you’re just not quite ready to process all the information. It takes a couple seconds to really figure out where you’re going, what you’re doing, what you need to be doing. There is some significant lag when you’re trying to be up all hours of the night,” said Sposito.

More than anything, the Amherst Firefighters Local 1764 union is focused on increasing the Amherst Fire department’s staff size. Based on a staffing study put on by safety consulting firm The Carlson Group in 2017, the current amount of paramedics and firefighters on staff is inadequate for the town of Amherst’s call volume. When the local colleges are in session, there are about eight firefighters on duty per shift, and seven in periods when the academic school year is out. According to Sposito, the union is looking for up to 15 people on duty to sustain the current call volume.

“We’re a 24-hour service and we need to be there for the community, so there’s no way to shut down the station for a period of time,” said Sposito.

Talking Zs with the sleep doctor

To get a better understanding of the effects of sleep deprivation, I took a trip over to the UMass Amherst Life Science laboratories to talk with sleep expert, Dr. Rebecca Spencer, associate professor of life and brain sciences. She gave me a tour of her sleep labs where she studies sleeping test subjects overnight. We then sat down and discussed the effects of sleep and lack of sleep on humans.

“The deficits from sleep deprivation we’re all very aware of because we’ve all had some level of sleep deprivation. We become less attentive. If that grogginess sets in, it’s really hard to focus, it’s hard to attend to things, it’s hard to remember things because you’re just not encoding new information,” she said.

As for the benefits of sleep, according to Dr. Spencer, they take on many forms.

“If you have sleep, the acute effects and benefits are things like enhancing your immune function,” said Spencer. “There’s things like cardiovascular effects, so it improves overall health. It also influences your choices, so a sleep deprived person is apt to choose unhealthy foods verses a well-rested person orients towards more healthy food choices. But also we know and what we show in our own work, is that sleep is when you consolidate memories. It also supports good decision making and having creative moments.”

No matter how greatly trained an overnight worker or 24-hour first responder may be in their line of work, the effects of deprivation are unavoidable if you’re missing the mark on your body’s needed sleep. While it’s commonly believed that we need eight hours of sleep each night, Dr. Spencer explained to me that it’s not that simple. Seven to eight hours a night is based on the averages, but your personal sleep need is based on genetics. For some, they may need much more, and for some lucky others, they may need much less.

“The best way to discover what your sleep need is to take a two-week vacation and then see how much sleep you have at the end,” said Spencer.

Spencer recommends two weeks because that’s about how long it will take to wash out sleep deprivation; lost sleep can’t simply be recovered the next night. To reap the benefits of sleep, consistency is the key.

“There was actually a study done somewhat recently that looked at the relationship between sleep and performance. As much as we think of that being driven how long you sleep, the interesting finding was that it was more driven by how variabled your sleep is. The people that performed worse were those that were going four hours a night, six hours a night and then binge sleeping later for like 12 to 14 hours a night,” said Spencer.

In my experience working third shift four nights a week, I found it nearly impossible to develop a consistent sleep schedule. Like Daniel, I never knew when I would be able to sleep. On mornings after I worked, I would attempt to fall asleep as soon as I got home, sometimes successfully, other times not so much. And when I had a day off I would attempt to sleep for as long as I could at night, only to further complicate my sleep pattern.

“So we know that sleep is driven by two things. It’s driven by our circadian rhythm. I biologically have this drive to go to sleep at say midnight. But it’s also driven by a second process that is more like a thermostat. The longer its been since I slept, the easier it’s going to be for me to fall asleep. So when you’re sleeping counter to your circadian rhythm say seven in the morning instead of 11 at night, I’m going to have some sleep pressure because of my thermostat, it’s been a long time since I slept, but I’m not going to have quite as much sleep pressure as I would if that was aligned with my circadian rhythm,” said Spencer.

Some days I would even attempt to split my sleep schedule, and give myself time for errands and a social life during the afternoon. According to Dr.Spencer, this only complicates things even more. With the many factors that come with overnight work like sleeping outside of your circadian rhythm, inconsistent sleep, and managing daytime responsibilities, it becomes nearly impossible to receive all the benefits that come from sleep, and more likely than not, the effects of deprivation will rear their head the longer you work overnight.

Sleep deprivation on the job can have dangerous results. Take truck driving for example. According to the book Counting Sheep: The Science and Pleasures of Sleep and Dreams, by Paul Martin, sleepiness is a factor in at least 50 percent of fatal crashes in which a truck driver is killed.

Extreme cases of sleep deprivation have been tested in the past. In 1959, disc jockey Peter Trip attempted to stay awake for 200 hours for charity. And in 1964, Randy Gardner set the record for days without sleep with 11 days. Both men experienced similar symptoms during the experiments.

“Even though physically they seemed awake during parts of this, they were showing signs of being asleep. They were going through 90-minute cycles of hallucinations, which means they were basically getting REM (rapid eye movement) sleep while awake. So your body is eventually going to drive you into that sleep state, which is really dangerous,” said Spencer.

Both men also showed heavy signs of irritability during the tests. I couldn’t help but compare their irritability to my constant irritability when working nights as well as Daniel in his reported interactions with his girlfriend to lesser extents. Is it possible that a firefighter could make the wrong call in a life or death situation after groggily answering a call after a 24 hour busy shift and forced overtime? These are all questions worth at least asking.

Would increasing the number of shifts in the work cycle from 3 to 4 and splitting up overnight duties solve anything? Would incentive pay for work between midnight and 6 a.m. compensate for not only harsh working conditions but harsh living conditions and increased health risks? I don’t have the answers to these questions.

What I do know is publications like Webforum, the Atlantic, and WebMD have produced articles about how bad overnight work is for your health especially when working overnights for five years or more. Something needs to be changed at the federal level, but I don’t have that kind of power.

What I do have is some night shift survival tips from Dr. Spencer for third-shift workers:

1) When sleeping during the day, get your bedroom to peak darkness.

“You have to set a somnerific environment, a sleep promoting environment. Those things are obviously light blocking curtains because the presence of light is what prevents melatonin from coming out. So you can maximize your own melatonin by getting into a dark room,” said Spencer.

2) Cool Down when it’s time for bed.

“It turns out we sleep best in a really cool environment as opposed to a really warm environment. We like to think of warm and cozy, but actually you want to reach your daytime low body temperature. This is one of the problems with trying to sleep outside of your circadian rhythm. Your natural circadian rhythm drops your body temperature to the lowest right aligned with your clock. So midnight or 1 am, you’re going to reach your daytime low body temperature and that’s good because that’s what you need to fall into deep sleep. But now I need to reach that daytime low body temperature at say ten in the morning, that’s hard to do,” said Spencer.

3) Ease up on the coffee and soda.

“One of the mistakes many shift workers make is they take a lot of caffeine during their shifts. That caffeine is great in the moment but it takes a long time for it to metabolize off,” said Spencer.