The Night Worker

In the process of musing about our perennially awake world for my Social Psych blog, I started to think about our present work world and how its operations have changed the lives of millions of workers.

I manage a 24/7 emergency crew (mental health). We handle callers from early evening until 7 AM, plus weekends and holidays. During the course of the night, we talk to hundreds of people from all walks of life. Until a few years ago (except for intermittent wartime production requirements), the people who worked through the night were limited to emergency services (police, fire, hospitals), the telephone company, a few booming manufacturing plants, and the military. Now we expect to order items, day or night, by telephone. We demand that support services for all our transactions be available 24/7.

How do night workers cope? For some, night work is a blessing, freeing up daytime hours for childcare or school. For those with limited skills and reduced income potential, moonlighting at night is a chance to earn a decent income. But night workers also pay a price: they never get quite as much sleep as their daytime compatriots. There is always so much more to get done during the business day and they receive constant interruptions from a world operating on an opposite schedule. After a period of time, they either adapt or quit.

Studies have shown that night workers suffer more injuries, make more errors, and experience more medical problems than do first shift employees. Those figures suggest that we function more efficiently in the historical tradition of sunup to sundown. We are not, by nature, nocturnal creatures.

The most difficult schedule to absorb, though, is one that undergoes frequent change. In some companies, shifts change monthly. I worked with a large manufacturing company years ago (a lot of their employees suffered injuries and needed my services), that held weekly seniority bids on all frontline positions. This meant that relatively new employees might work days one week, swing the following week, and graveyard the next. When I pointed out a possible connection between these horrible work schedules and the company's accident rate, I was told that the Union refused to allow any changes in the system.

Now unions are supposed to represent the needs of the workers, aren't they? How could they possibly justify the stress they were causing their own members?

I finally figured out (sometimes I'm a little slow!) that their members with seniority liked the system because they could easily change their work hours for a week if something came up or they wanted to avoid working for a particular foreman.

Those who had the luck to get in early had a terrific advantage over the newbies. Like the initial members of pyramid schemes or Multi-Level-Marketing scams, they were on the gravy train. And the newcomers - the recently unemployed, minorities, women, the disabled - were left the dregs to fight over while mired in their constant vulnerability to layoff.

Virginia Bola operated a rehabilitation company for 20 years, developing innovative job search techniques for disabled workers, while serving as a Vocational Expert in Administrative, Civil and Workers' Compensation Courts. Author of an interactive and supportive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a monthly ezine, The Worker's Edge, she can be reached at or

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