Doing the graveyard

The explosion of IT development has fuelled a demand for call centre workers, 24/7 technical support staff for ISPs, software testers and the like to work the graveyard shift.

Fourteen years ago John was earning as much in his IT job as he gets today, but after a while he knew was heading for a mental institution or an early grave and had to give it up.

Peter was in a similar role, but eventually he faced a choice -- his job or his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Sarah was able to party the night away after he night shift, until the job “screwed up her body”.

The trio, all of whose names have been changed, were “doing the graveyard".

While the collapse of manufacturing has meant less night shift work in some areas, the explosion of IT development has fuelled a demand for call centre workers, 24/7 technical support staff for ISPs, software testers and the like to work the graveyard shift.

Those who do it say working at night has both perks and pitfalls.

A common pattern emerges on the perks side -- better money and prospects and a chance to do something different. However, despite these advantages, all three had to give it up.

John worked as a computer operator on rotating shifts for companies like IBM, NZI and Datacom from the late 1980s to 1996, often working 7pm to 7am, but only doing a year or two at a time.

“It was really good money. In 1988, I was earning then what I am earning now. Same cash, but it was worth more then,” he says.

There were allowances for meals, travel and unsocial hours, so wages just amounted to half the take-home pay. Despite 12-hour days, the working week was often shorter. But after a while, says thirty-something John, “nightshift made me insane”.

“When I was younger I could handle it. But it fries up the brain. It was so bad for me I started to go unstable,” he says.

Currently working as a webmaster, John advises anyone considering nightshift to make sure they are getting paid well as it does you no good. He also advises people to look after their health, and notes that if you tend to drop asleep at 11pm you will never make a nightshift worker.

Sarah, who now works in sales, worked as an assistant systems administrator and used nights to work her way up in the industry.

“You tended to get promoted from doing the shiftwork into doing the day job -- and getting more money,” she says. And working until 11pm on rotating shifts meant “we could go out partying and sleep in the morning”.

But after a while, working nights “sucked” and Sarah's personal belief is that shiftwork is particularly bad for the female body. "I know a lot of women police officers find the same thing." At the time she was single, but now that she has children regular night shifts are out.

“If you are a night owl, great, but you should not do it forever. If you are a guy who is not a social creature and you enjoy sitting and programming, then fine, but if you want to break out, go and do other things,” Sarah says.

A need for a normal life was the reason Peter gave up after 18 months as team leader on the helpdesk at Xtra, working from 11pm to 7am. He took the job because it offered more money and a promotion.

Peter found it hard at first getting his sleeping patterns right and needed sleeping pills, but he enjoyed the work, having no managers around and being in charge of the entire operation.

However, he had no personal life and, after discussing things with his girlfriend, decided enough was enough. Luckily he was able to shift into the same role during normal working hours.

Peter says people should realise nightwork is demanding on their bodies and to check if their family or partner doesn’t mind them working night hours and sleeping during the day. But he acknowledges that night-shift work can help IT professionals progress in their career.

Why does it affect our bodies so much? Studies suggest that we have evolved to sleep at night and work and eat in the day -- a system known as the circadian rhythm. If we reverse this rhythm by working and eating at night, it confuses our metabolism and puts our health at risk.

Some night-shift workers claim they get used to this altered pattern, but studies suggest night-shift workers have more problems than day-shift workers, notably with their hearts and digestive organs, and are also more prone to problems with their relationships.

A University of South Australia study of transport workers said workers claimed shift work gave them more quality time with their families, but their partners did not agree, saying their spouses were listless and irritable at home.

This and other issues related to night shiftworking, including tips on how best to cope, is available in abundance on the web. Among the many sources of information, the US-based National Sleep Foundation is perhaps the best.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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Tags careersnightshift

More about 24/7DatacomDatacomIBM AustraliaUniversity of South AustraliaUniversity of South AustraliaXtra

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