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The Challenges of Night Work

The Social Challenges of Daytime Sleep


Dennis Dean, PhD, of Harvard, describes how social factors and family obligations complicate daytime sleep.

Dan started railroad work as a brakeman at age 20 in 1971. He became a locomotive engineer in 1977. In the past three decades, he has provided passenger service for six different railroads near to his New England home. He and his wife Maureen have reared nine children—four of hers, and five of his—from previous marriages. 

I go to work at 3:30 PM in the afternoon. I get done at 2 AM. Even though it's Monday through Friday—like every engineer's dream—you find yourself absolutely fighting sleep on that last trip. You do all you can do to stay awake. 

By the time I get home, I'm wide awake. All right! Let's watch TV! I'm finally getting to sleep around 3 AM, sometimes 3:30 AM, then getting woken up again at 7 AM in the morning with the noise and ruckus. Then, Ah—the sun's up, I want to get up. Everything in my system says wake up. So now, the next night that I go to work, I haven't really made up that lack of sleep. So if I'm not careful, after two or three days, I can be one exhausted puppy. 

Years ago, when one of my children had to leave for school at 7 AM, I often drove him there. Sometimes, I was so tired, I sent him to school in a taxi. 

Today, even if I awaken at 7 AM, I may stay in bed until 10 AM and try to get more sleep. Since I can see a little daylight around the draperies, and hear traffic noise, I often toss and turn. I seldom nap. 

I live only about a mile from my rail yard, a six-minute drive. Starting at 4 PM, I provide passenger service, returning at 8:10 PM. Because I live close by, I can go home on my break for 2.5 hours. I leave at 10:45 PM for another round trip, and return at 1:30 AM.  

If I have union-related meetings to attend, I try to schedule them for late morning or early afternoon. 

On Saturday, my day off, I go to bed at 10-11 PM. I have no trouble falling asleep, because I'm sleep-deprived. I sleep seven or eight hours. On Sunday, also a day off, I'm in a perfect state of mind. That night I also go to bed at 10-11 PM. Having caught up with sleep, however, I often wake up around 4 or 5 AM. I try to sleep longer, because I know I'll be working that night. 

The son I used to drive to school at 7 AM graduated from college in June 2011. He just started working for the railroad himself. He's an assistant conductor. He knows about the hours I keep, but I believe he's always wanted to be a locomotive engineer.                                           

-Dan, locomotive engineer