How many times have you woken up and taken a few minutes to remember whether you were at home or at the away from home hotel? How about woken up thinking you either missed your call to work, or that you had already gotten it and are late? Woken up in your driveway and don’t remember the trip home? Every one of these is relatable to transportation workers, and far too often accepted by them as well.
Working on call without regularly scheduled time off makes getting adequate regular sleep nearly impossible. Shift Worker Sleep Disorder is a well-documented issue in many industries where your work hours overlap your body’s natural sleep pattern, or Circadian Rhythm. The issue with transportation workers is that we don’t have regular shifts, we may work that perfect slot of 5-8 A.M. on the trip up, but then we’re thrown into second shift, if not third, hours for the trip back home. This leads the body into a confused state, which after a week can put you into a debilitating “sleep debt” that can be difficult to recover from. This was the basis of the adjustments to the Federal Hours of Service in the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act.
With our schedule of being on call and getting sometimes just enough sleep to work that next shift, your body starts tallying up the sleep debt (just like they explain in the EXCITING videos they have you watch at work). After a while your body is running on fumes, or living paycheck to paycheck waiting for the next payday, bed. As mentioned before with Shift Worker Sleep Disorder, this process of your body running on little recovery for long periods of time increases your risks of various problems including heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. There is also starting to be studies that show physicians that work on call have drastically reduced performance, felt increased stress, and worse mood during their shifts after being on call for only a few days!
Getting good sleep between starts is one of the more difficult parts of the lifestyle to adapt to. It’s easy to tie up at 9 P.M. after a full twelve hours, go home, have a somewhat late dinner, and watch a movie or show until you fall asleep. This is the time your body naturally goes into its restorative state, with the peak sleep time being around 2-4 A.M. If this happens to you once a month it’s awesome, and should be celebrated. The reality is you get home around 8-10 A.M. after working ten hours or so, you’re tired, but not exhausted, and you tied up enough times out that you might not go to work for twenty hours or so. Or you might get home at 9 P.M., only instead of working a full day, you got deadheaded home on your rest and now you’re at home, having slept all day at the away terminal and unable to sleep. Now what?
There are some things you should have set up at home that will allow you a regular place to get sleep that can be dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature. The first actually starts way before, stay away from caffeine for at least four hours prior to sleep. Caffeine can keep you from going into REM sleep, where your body gets its best rest. Next is naturally a bedroom (whether your regular one or a spare) that has a quality mattress, blankets, and pillows that you are comfortable with. Next is the ability to darken the room; this can be done by having the bed set up in your basement, wearing a sleep mask, or what I like best, place Velcro tape along the edges of your curtains and seal the edges to block out the light. The last important part is temperature control, and having either a small heater or fan to keep that temperature where you like it best.
After these comes the personal preference, some people like having a TV, which although common, is actually shown to reduce the amount of deep sleep your body can get due to providing constant stimulation from light and sound. White noise machines or just YouTube videos like ASMR response are another common way people fall asleep, these are shown to be good as long as they are timer set and shut off after you are asleep. Cell phones are another distraction from sleep, they should be turned off if possible, or at the very least set to “do not disturb” (you can make it so that the railroad can still call) and placed far enough away that it can’t be reached. Reading a book with a low wattage bulb can help you calm down and relax into sleep.
But what if you just can’t sleep? The example earlier of getting home after sleeping all day and now having to try and sleep more is all too real, and is the beginning of the cycle of sleep deprivation. Often people either watch TV or browse the internet for hours, again having light stimulate your brain for many hours preventing you from falling asleep. Alcohol is often said to help you sleep, and while it may help you fall asleep, it also reduces the amount of restful sleep you get by keeping you in a lighter state of sleep. A great thing to do is exercise. If you can go to a gym and get a workout in, go for a walk, or something like cleaning up the house can burn off energy and wind you down. It is much better to stay a bit active and end up getting 4-5 hours of good sleep when you are tired than to lay in bed and get 6-8 hours of tossing and turning poor sleep.
In those times when you NEED to sleep there are sleep supplements like melatonin, valerian root, and kava that can help you ease into sleep and in some cases get you to REM sleep faster. I always carry with me out of town some type of sleep supplement, and often use them at home as well. Some that I have used that work for me are:
NOW foods Sleep:
This is fairly effective, although there are some studies that show it is purely placebo effect, but if I can take a cheap pill that helps me in any way sleep and isn’t habit forming, it’s worth it to me. There are days where I wake up a little groggy from using this, after which I will stop use for a while.
Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra:
This is something that people have used for many years, it’s a combination of chamomile, flowers, and valerian root that tastes good and I have found to be very effective. This will also lose effectiveness after repeated use.
This is for when you absolutely have to sleep; this is much like the Sleepytime tea, just much stronger. Chaos and Pain is known for making the strongest supplements there are, and they did it with a sleep aid with Hypnos. This will flat out put you to sleep, and again like the others, it will lose effectiveness over time. Your body will build resistance to any supplement, and you can either up the dosage, or the better idea is to stop using them. Your body needs to naturally fall asleep as much as possible.
We are starting to find that many transportation workers suffer from sleep apnea; they have no issue falling asleep and feel tired all day (sounds like almost everyone, right?). With the recent incidents resulting in calls from regulators for sleep testing of all train service employees this is a topic that cannot be ignored.
Having a sleep study done is the only way to determine for sure if you have sleep apnea, snoring and constantly feeling tired are not automatic indicators. Once you get a sleep study done you and your doctor can come up with a plan of treatment to ensure you are able to get the sleep you need.
Treatment for sleep apnea can frequently be the CPAP machine that many are familiar with, which pushes air into your lunges keeping your tongue from obstructing your breathing. These machines now are usually wifi capable and send reports regularly to your doctor’s office to make sure they are being used properly and seeing if adjustments need to be made based on the info. The masks that the machines are attached to can be as simple as a nose tube or up to a full mask depending on need and fit.
Another common treatment for sleep apnea is actually through your dentist. Mouthpieces specially formed for your jaw can keep you in a position that doesn’t allow your tongue to fall back and therefore keeps your airway open.
The most important thing to do is find a way to get restful sleep and be able to work safely, however you can. Gambling by blowing off sleep and hoping for a nap at work is dangerous, and just like a casino, the odds are usually not in your favor. Prioritizing your sleep is the best way, but I know reality is different and sometimes that just can’t happen, so get good sleep when you can. You will find deep restful sleep is just like running your car on better fuel, even a smaller amount can be more effective than the cheap stuff.