Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Graveyard shift can suck the life out of you

Post by Brian O'Neill on April 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm with 11 Comments »
September 30, 2013 8:22 am

I knew a vampire once.

He had dark hair and pale skin and his clothes were a midnight blue. He usually woke up just as the last rays of the sun were winking out on the horizon. Give or take a few minutes.

My friend wasn’t especially adherent to the strict regimen of vampires – bloodsucking, for one, was not on his list of to-do’s. But then, strictly speaking, he wasn’t a traditional vampire. He was a cop on the graveyard shift.

Courtesy of

What separated my friend from countless people working the night shift was this unique decision: He changed his lifestyle to accommodate his work, not vice versa. He slept during the day and stayed awake all night and religiously maintained that schedule even on his days off. Ergo, a vampire.

Unfortunately, there is little else that a typical graveyard shift worker can do. The real world operates during daylight hours, and it provides little accommodation for police officers who sleep during the day. Despite that, plenty of cops choose to work night shift with its combination of mostly empty streets and excitement-infused 911 calls.

Years ago, I was a 24-year-old rookie reveling in the constant stream of priority calls and high speed pursuits. The steady adrenalin drip kept me awake, but when I got home around 8 a.m. – my nerves jangling and my head spinning – falling asleep with the sun in my eyes and the smell of breakfast in my nose was never easy.

That’s when I learned a few tricks. Aluminum foil over windows will keep out the sunlight. A fan will lower the room temperature. Ear plugs will block out the noise. Over time I found I could knock out a shaky seven hours of sleep, enough to get me back into the patrol car by the next evening.

Then came my day off and a quick regression back into the real world. Scheduled for a court hearing at 9AM, a doctor’s appointment at 11, oh, and the kids need to be picked up after school. By the time I was ready to restart the work week, I had already reverted to sleeping at night. The graveyard shift usually cost me the equivalent of a night’s worth of sleep over the week.

The lack of a disciplined sleep schedule isn’t the only factor actively sabotaging the body clock of night shift workers. In police departments, training classes and mandatory meetings are usually scheduled right about the time the graveyard shift is fluffing their pillows. When the appointed time arrives you can always pick out the cops assigned to graveyard – they are the ones shutting their bloodshot eyes every time they yawn.

Here’s a news flash for agencies and businesses who staff a night shift: The human body is ill equipped to deal with externally imposed fluctuations in a sleep schedule.

There have been many sleep studies conducted to determine the effects of working rotating shifts. The data consistently suggests that night shift workers are far more likely to short-change their sleep, adjust their sleep patterns on their days off, or interrupt their sleep for errands. This behavior puts night shift workers at considerable health risk, as a Trib story  (4/22) relates: “three or more night shifts a month, interspersed with day or evening hours, raises the risk of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.”

In fact, the data has changed so little over the years that it makes me wonder why further studies are conducted.

My old friend the vampire must have known this all along. He was very much at home on the graveyard shift when he made the decision to live a nocturnal life. For him, failing health or an assignment on day shift were false choices.

For everyone else who find themselves working on the back side of midnight, consider the wisdom of the vampire as you stumble through the bleary nights and bloodshot days surviving on caffeine, catnaps and a never-ending supply of yawns.

His idea, if you’ll pardon the pun, doesn’t suck.

Leave a comment Comments → 11
  1. I made coffee on the command post for a SAR mission many
    years ago at 2 AM. The deputy held it up to the light and grinned.
    “The coffee has to hold a pencil straight up.” I never made
    coffee on TAC-1 again and was confined to radios.

  2. Made that mistake once. Never again. Not willingly anyway.
    Graveyard ages you in dog years. It destroys your health. And if you’re not careful, everything else in your life.

  3. Pilots work all night, then after a minimum of rest operate during the day, and operate that way repeatedly. Of course most of them are non union, and have to pay for any for any health care needed after burning out from such a schedule. Sleeping during the day is impossible for them, as their bodies are completely out of sync with their natural rhythm. It appears I missed the point of this article, which is ?

  4. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    Yes I know the feeling all too well, just got off work.

  5. Brian O'Neill says:

    The point was simply to remind people that there is a whole different world operating at night, and it is not in sync with the daytime world. I think you got it.

  6. Theoldsergeant says:

    Yes indeed, the graveyard shift is a killer. My family told me that my attitude started a downward curve after a few days of it. Never could get used to it and neither did my family.

  7. dankuykendall says:

    With 20 years in the military rotating whenever the whim struck,ran over into my civilian life. After I retired I worked a couple of different night shift jobs. It takes practice and above all, not living in the daylight world, sucks.

  8. Brian O'Neill says:

    You know you’re officially a graveyard-er when the only people you get along with are the people on your shift.

  9. First four years of my military career featured a schedule of three swing shifts, three mid shifts, three days off. Talk about brutal. Your body was constantly shifting your sleep patterns. And my wife worked days.

  10. Whatever1214 says:

    And a neighbors dog barks all day while they are at work. Gardners run back mounted leaf blowers moving dust, dirt and an occasional leaf back and forth. The teen age girl next door has a boyfriend with a car and no muffler who thinks it is the height of class to honk “shave and a haircut” each time he arrives and departs.

    And the beat goes on……..

  11. whatthehell says:

    I worked the graveyard shift for about 10 years. friends/family would come by during the day and wonder why I was ‘always sleeping’.

    the worse was coming home from work in the morning and seeing your front door open. you would go in and everything was gone. this would happen to me on averge about twice a year.

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