There are thousands of shift-working parents in the UK juggling the demands of work, relationships and family. Often working long hours, sometimes in highly stressful jobs, many shift workers feel under enormous pressure to successfully balance work with life at home. Add in the fact that the body clock and circadian rhythms are all out of kilter, and it’s easy to see why many shift workers struggle to keep relationships and family life on an even keel.
Here are 5 top tips for surviving shift work and keeping family life in good shape:
1. Embrace the times you get together and prioritise important events
One of the great benefits of shift work is the flexibility it gives families in terms of childcare. For families with one parent on night shifts, it can save money on childcare with flexibility around picking up the kids from school.
A constantly changing shift pattern can be quite a strain, but with advanced childcare planning and carefully managed rest, there is plenty of opportunity for quality family time. Some shift patterns involve intense working hours over 3-5 days, followed by 3 or more consecutive days off. Take full advantage of the benefits of the shift-working rota and get away on a family trip together whenever you can.
With shift work in many service jobs spanning weekends and public holidays, there will inevitably be times when special days get celebrated earlier or later (Mother’s day, Father’s day, Easter etc.). Pick the occasions that mean the most (i.e. Christmas morning) and always try to be home for at least one or two of those special family times in the annual calendar.
2. Work on communication
Communication and forward planning is absolutely essential for the household supporting a shift-working parent. When one parent takes on most of the day-to-day (getting homework done, completing school forms, keeping up with after school clubs) it’s easy for communication about important events to fall by the wayside. A message about dates for the school play or a football tournament can easily be forgotten.
Without regular catch-ups, it can easily feel like partners are ships passing in the night. As one goes to bed, the other is starting their day. Even a quick 10-minute chat over a cup of chamomile tea will help to keep communication lines open. Be sure the shift rota is communicated well in advance. Many organisations use software with a shift planner, so it should be easy for rota information to be shared via phones.
Communication with friends is equally important and it’s a bonus if friends also have a shift-working lifestyle. Talking to those who understand the difficulties can be a great support and source of advice. Friends sharing your lifestyle will also understand when you’re spending time together as a family and can’t make an event.
3. Have a plan for household duties, meals and other responsibilities
Keeping on top of the day-to-day will most likely be the responsibility of a non-shift working parent. Resentment can build on shift workers’ days off if they get to rest, while the non-shift worker carries on with business as usual. While it is important for shift workers to rest and recuperate, both parents need time out. Shift work can be exhausting so factor in a recovery day, followed by a plan for sharing the household duties, cooking, shopping and childcare responsibilities on other days off. Where possible, factor in some downtime for both of you together.
In a shift-working household, routine is very important. But, it’s equally important to be able to go with the flow. Skipping the kids’ bath-time in place of an extra half hour play in the garden when both parents are home will benefit the whole family.
4. Lead a healthy lifestyle
Shift work should never be underestimated. It has social and physiological implications. That’s why it’s important to lead as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Be prepared with food, as healthy options may be limited if you’re working long shifts.
Snacks from vending machines and processed meals in the microwave should only be eaten as a last resort. Also avoid the use of stimulants, such as coffee and cigarettes, to get you through the unsociable hours.
Be prepared to cancel plans if either of you is fatigued. Rest and recuperation is vital. Factor exercise into your routine as much as is possible. A family bike ride will do you all the power of good.
5. Make sleep a priority
Many shift workers with young children admit they don’t manage to catch up with a solid sleep during the day. Irregular sleep patterns are known to affect the immune system and can make you more vulnerable to illness.
Here are some tips for getting adequate rest
- A 15 to 20-minute power nap during the day before an evening shift will help to refresh.
- Sleep for a couple of blocks of 3-4 hours if a straight 7-8 hours isn’t possible.
- Have black-out blinds in your bedroom.
- Reduce the temperature in your bedroom. The optimum temperature for sleep is 60-65°F.
- Post up a sleep schedule, so your family know when the house needs to be at its quietest.