The Guilt of Shift Work

guilt family police first responder

Being a husband, wife and/or parent as a first responder comes with a lot of guilt.  

You love your job.  You’d be lost without it.   Every single shift, you impact someone’s life.   The people you are helping, need you. But, you also have a family at home who needs you as much as you need them.  Because of the nature of shift work, they are often awake and living their life while you are working or sleeping.

Lost Moments

Milestones and celebrations are missed because you are on shift helping other people and unable to be there in person.   You switch between feeling guilty that you are not there to support and be there for them and feeling sorry for yourself that you are missing out.   

All of these feelings are valid.  You have every right to feel them.   As long as you are not carrying them everywhere you go and basing your actions on this guilt.

You should not be sacrificing yourself in order to make up for the guilt you are feeling.

Self Sacrifice

There are two ways that you can react to these feelings.     

Your first instinct is probably to go into reactive mode.  Often when our kids are young you can’t be there for many firsts.   First steps, First words … As soon as they get to an age where events are planned ahead you don’t want to miss a thing.  An attempt to make up for lost time.

So, you sacrifice your health to get to any and every event, celebration, sport practice or game that you can.  Even if this means you do not sleep between shifts. The guilt is so strong and the need to make up for all of the time you are away that it’s hard to step back and look at the full picture.  

I’m going to give you a thirty thousand foot view of what you are doing to yourself,  how it is not helping your goal of spending quality time with your family and how to create a tactical plan to work for both you and your family.   

What you are doing to yourself.

Your intention is to spend as much quality time with your family as possible. You can envision it.   All of you happily enjoying the activity together and creating memories that will take the guilt away.  And you will do this at almost any cost. But is it worth it?

If you are exhausted, how much of your time, energy and focus can you truly give them?   

Do you often sit in the corner when they are playing and fall asleep on the couch, or start to nod off when out and about at events?   

Are you spending all of your time out at social events thinking about when you can leave?   

Is this the life you imagined?

When you are so tired and stressed, do you get easily frustrated and have a short fuse when all you want is hugs, cuddles and fun times?  

If this resonates with you, I am going to ask you if this is what you want?   Is your time spent with your family how you imagined it?

Is your lack of sleep worth trying to squash your guilt?   

The way you are doing things, is it working?   

Don’t worry if you answered no, because I am going to tell you why you are not getting the quality time with them and help you create a tactical plan to get what you want and take care of yourself.   

Why this is not working.

Sleep is when your mind and body heals.   Here are some of the amazing things that happen when you sleep.   

Heart Health

When you don’t get enough sleep, your blood vessels are affected thus worsening your blood pressure and cholesterol which are precursors to heart attacks and strokes.

Stress Reduction

Lack of sleep increases your stress response sending more stress hormones through your body which then make it harder to fall asleep when you are wanting to fall asleep.  These stress hormones also increase your blood pressure adding to your list of heart risks. Making sleep a priority helps keep your stress down.

Reduces Inflammation   

When you sleep your body repairs itself.   When you don’t sleep it is unable to repair and your body’s way of remedying this is to send out an inflammatory response.  This is what happens as soon as you injure yourself to protect the area when healing. But when you do not have an actual injury and your body becomes inflamed, it results in all sorts of health issues often starting with achy joints, digestive issues, diabetes and making you age faster than you should be.  

Makes you more alert  

It’s a vicious cycle.   You avoid sleeping to attend an event and then are so tired you can’t get to sleep when you finally put your head on the pillow.  Then you don’t get a good sleep, are tired when it’s time to sleep again, and the cycle continues. This is a pattern I see a lot with shift workers.   When you are able to support your stress management system and get consistent solid sleeps your brain is more alert and you can focus on your loved ones.

Improves your memory

Deep sleep is when your brain processes everything it experienced in your day.   This is when information you learned is saved, memories are made, and feelings are processed.   When you don’t sleep your memory and cognition decreases. Simple tasks become harder and it becomes tough to make it through your day let alone spend quality time with family.

If you are the person that I know you are, you want to be there long term for your family.   

When you are with them, you want to be at your best . You want to enjoy dates with your spouse,  hanging out with your kids, playing sports, playing games, and learning whatever it is that they are into.   Building strong family memories is important to you.

In order to do this you have to take care of yourself.  Sleep is one of the first things I work on with first responders in my Shift Work Cure Program.   It is not the only stress trigger, but it’s a big one. Which brings us to…

Tactical plan to spend quality time with your family and take care of yourself.  

How do you get your sleep and spend time with your family?  

Answer-  create a tactical plan

How?  

Sit down with your family.  Have your work schedule and personal family events calendar with you.

Start off by talking to them.   Tell them how much you love them and that you feel horrible that you can not always be at their events and celebrations.   Explain that you have been trying to make it up to them by going to everything when you aren’t at work, but that means missing out on sleep which makes you exhausted and causes you to not be as much fun to be around.

Both sleep and family events take priority.

Then tell them that you would like to look at all of their event and celebrations and figure out which ones they REALLY want you to go to,  which ones you can change the date to celebrate it when you are off and can give them your full, rested attention, and which ones they are ok if you opt out on, to get your much-needed sleep.  

Start by writing down every single event you can think of in the next few months.   

Put them into the three categories you talked about or make up your own.   
  1. Things they really want you to go to
  2. Things you can reschedule
  3. Things that you can opt out on and sleep instead

Figure out if the events that they really want you to go to, are possible.  Discuss when you will sleep and schedule both your sleep as well as the time for the event.   Both sleep and family events take priority.

Now you have managed everyone’s expectations.  You and your family can look forward to events that you can go to instead of focusing on being disappointed you are not there.   Instead of exhausting yourself trying to get to everything, you can get the sleep you need. And the time you do get together is special and will create so many great memories.  

Communication is key.   

It’s not about how much time you spend, but the quality of the time.   And when everyone knows what is going to happen there are less unknowns and room for guilt and negative thoughts that bring you down instead of lifting you up.  

So go grab your family and your calendar, today, and get planning.  

If you’d like to learn more ways of reducing stress in your life as a first responder you will want to join my 911 Stress Management Group where we talk about share how we all do it.    We are always stronger when we work together.

<<<<Click this link to join>>>>

And if you are saying to yourself,  this is great Andi, but there is no way that even if I block of time for sleep that I am going to be able to fall asleep.  My brain is tired and wired, or I always wake up mid sleep.

Then you will want to grab your free copy of 5 Quick and Simple Sleep Tips That Stop Shift Work Burnout  

Ask if you have questions.  I am here to help.


Disclaimer

The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.