Surviving shift work as a family

"Shift work is like jet lag, but shift workers are coping with jet lag every time their shift changes" ... Dr Ian Brown
"Shift work is like jet lag, but shift workers are coping with jet lag every time their shift changes" ... Dr Ian Brown 

Returning to work is a stressful time for any parent. But for some parents it can be even trickier – they not only have to survive through broken sleep, but also get through entire night shifts on top of it. 

Every day, thousands of shift working parents have to juggle the demands of family life alongside stressful jobs, long hours and rotating shifts.   

The ABS 2012 Working Time Arrangements survey found that 1.5 million Australians are employed in shift work for their main job. That's over 16 per cent of the working population, a third of which are regularly working between nine and 12 hours a shift.   

Families with shift working parents have a lot to consider in order to successfully balance career and home life, but a shift worker’s main battle is sleep … or lack of it.

Dr Ian Brown, a leading sleep specialist for Brisbane's St. Andrew's War Memorial Hospital, explains how shift work makes the body clock and circadian rhythms constantly work out of kilter.

“If we’re working when our body tells us we should be sleeping, there are overwhelming problems. Shift work is like jet lag, but shift workers are coping with jet lag every time their shift changes," he says.  

Many shift workers, particularly those with young children, admit to not having a solid sleep after a night shift. Dr Brown says that while there’s no substitute for a good sleep, nap opportunities can be good.

“A 15 to 20-minute nap throughout the day or before an evening shift will give you a degree of refreshment,” he says. “Two separate three to four-hour sleeps are also an option if a solid seven or eight hours can’t be achieved."  

Nathan and Jemma Haythorpe started their journey as shift working parents after their daughter Milla’s birth seven months ago. Nathan returned to his job as an EMS air crewman on the ambulance rescue helicopter six weeks after Milla's birth. 


"Being married to a shift worker has its ups and downs,” Jemma said.

She says it can be beneficial, as they can get five or six days together as a family, but that it can be a struggle: “There have been times when we couldn’t attend functions and we've had to cancel plans because Nath was too fatigued."  

She has some advice for other shift working families, saying, “Try to remember being a shift worker is a balancing act. Reflect on the amount of time spent at work and the responsibility of being a parent”.

Communication with your family is particularly important, as shift work significantly affects moods and behaviours.  A 2012 study of mining workers found that while shift work has social and physical side effects, there are also psychological implications, with up to 15 per cent of respondents saying they suffered from depression.  

The study, conducted by Griffith University, also showed other ways relationships are affected by non-traditional work hours. Many partners said that shift workers seem too emotionally drained to contribute to the household after work, leading to increased depression, anxiety and migraines.  

Brooke Taylor, an occupational therapist and general manager of Injury Treatment, a workplace injury prevention and rehabilitation service, works with companies to prevent stress-related injuries. Programs are mutually beneficial to companies and employees as they aim to increase productivity while minimising stress for employees, in turn promoting healthy family relationships.   

She notes that particularly stressful shift work jobs can have harmful effects.   

"For those in high stress shift work jobs, such as police officers, doctors and fire fighters, the impact of lack of sleep can be detrimental,” she says. “These workers are completely relied upon, often in life or death situations."  

For all shift workers and their families, however, Brooke says the best way to manage stress is to be proactive.

"Have things planned that you can look forward to, such as lunch dates with friends, family picnics, or a massage. Increase the amount of exercise and recognise the activities that make you feel relaxed."   

For parents-to-be Brad Stirton, a police officer, and his wife Sharday, an emergency services dispatcher, night shifts and rotating rosters are a part of life. They say exercise and communication are key factors in managing stress and maintaining a positive relationship.  

Despite the disadvantages of shift work, such as missing out on special events like Christmas and birthdays, Brad and Sharday say they’re prepared to continue their lives as shift workers after the birth of their baby in November.   

"Shift work produces the optimum environment for our family,” Sharday says. “When we have our baby we will have a plan in place to deal with the inconsistent shifts and the lack of sleep coupled with our baby's needs."  

While the life style may be hard to juggle, it has a number of good points, including flexibility, longer lengths of time for family bonding, and penalty pay rates.   

With good communication, a healthy relationship and a great level of understanding, shift work can offer families a happy balance of work and family life.  

Do you or your partner do shift work? How does it work - or not work - for your family? Comment below.