If you’re a shift worker, or have been in the past, then this blog will (hopefully) ring true with you. If you’re not, and never have been, if you’re part of the 9-5 brigade then read on, and spare a thought for that grumpy, bleary eyed, slightly mental-looking person in a uniform you glance at on the the bus. You’re traveling to your office, in your suit and tie, all fresh and ready to face the day. But, pull your eyes away from whatever gadget you’re engrossed in and look around. You’ll generally see at least one. It’s normally the one who’s yawning and nodding off on the back seat where it’s (usually) nice and warm. In most cases that person isn’t a fruitloop, that person has probably just finished a night shift, and all they want to do is go home, have a hot drink, and get into bed.
Working nights is part of any shift workers job, be it permanent on intermittent. Many people work permanent nights, and many people, like me, work them periodically. This blog is based on, and written from, my personal feelings about working nights. Still, I’m sure my feelings and experiences aren’t unique. I would like to stress again, just be clear, I’m not a permanent night shift worker.
So first thing’s first. The strangest thing for me about working nights, and potentially the most obvious for you dear reader is this: You sleep through the day and work through the night! Right away it’s unnatural. Human beings weren’t meant to work nights. Night time is, or was, for sleeping.
“IF WE WERE MEANT TO WORK NIGHTS,
WE WOULDN’T NEED LIGHTS”
We live in a 24-hour society now, where we’re all starting to get used to supermarkets being open all night for example, but in certain lines of work night shifts have always been there. I’m not going to get into higher arguments about the pros and cons of a 24-hour society. I’ll work from one simple premise: Night shifts are necessary. Anywhere that members of the public need to be either looked after or locked up, like hospitals and prisons, as well as infrastructure like the emergency services, travel or construction. Places like factories, shipping offices, newspaper companies, delivery firms, the Post Office and many more. These are the areas of our now 24-hour society you’ll find the night shift workers. These, as well as many others have always been 24-hour societies.
You already knew all that though, right? Of course you did, being the intelligent human being you are.
But! If you’ve never worked through the night, I’m going to try and take you through it. Sitting comfortably? Got a cuppa? Yes? Ok, here we go!
The first thing I want to talk about is the feeling of working nights. Personally, working nights feels totally different than working the day shift. I don’t mean in the obvious way, the fact that it’s not light outside. I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what it is, but there’s a definite difference. It can feel pretty surreal depending on how you prepare, but we’ll get to that. For now, just take my word for it, it’s different.
I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone who works nights, but when I work them I don’t feel in sync with the rest of the world. There’s a feeling of disconnection, like you take a break from life. Strange I know but these are my experiences don’t forget. They vary from person to person.
Another thing I find difficult to get used to is having breakfast when almost everyone else is having their evening meal. On the flip side of that, it’s an even stranger feeling having cravings for a takeaway and a beer at 8 o’clock in the morning. I generally just settle for toast.
Speaking of food, working nights is usually when you eat more junk food and…well I’m going to say it, crap, than any other time in your working life. You tend to eat a lot of sugar, and most people justify that by saying it gives them the energy they need to get through the shift. Fair enough. Microwave meals or sandwiches are a night staff food-favourite, as well as cakes, chocolate, and crisps. My diet changes radically during my night shifts because the time there’s a proper meal available to eat is usually exactly 10 minutes after I’ve just woken up and can’t even look at it nevermind eat it.
But it’s not just what you eat, another consideration is how you eat all this stuff that’s ultimately really bad for you. Rather than just having one sitting, like you would at home around the dinner table, you graze. Food is picked at all night long, so you usually end up eating three or even four times the amount of junk than you would if you were to sit down and eat constantly for thirty minutes or so.
All this junk food, and for some people unusually high amounts of caffeine, adds to the yucky, uncomfortable feeling of having to stay awakeall night in the first place. Yes, you might get the burst of energy you want or need, but it doesn’t last, so to keep it going you eat more junk, and eventually you just end up feeling sick. I am, however, aware that there are some night shift workers who do try to eat healthily, but they still have a go at any goodies left for the staff by a grateful, recently discharged patient and don’t let them tell you otherwise.
Ok, let’s try something. For the next thirty seconds I want you to close your eyes and think of a hospital.
Hello? Down here! Hi. Did you do it? You probably saw busy waiting rooms, bustling corridors, noise, clatter and activity right? Doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants and porters all rushing around quite busy and needing to have finished what they’re doing five minutes ago yes? Well, at night, that doesn’t happen.
Ok, in some places it does, like A&E departments, but for the most part, a hospital is a completely different place at night. Empty corridors, unmanned desks, no ancillary staff, cleaners, physiotherapists, secretaries, pharmacists, all gone home. For the most part there’s only silence. Hospitals at night are quite frankly, very eerie places.
Except…except when there’s that particular doctor who insists on wearing his clicky-clacky winkle-pickers. You know the one, he sounds like a tap-dancing baby elephant as he struts down the ward and proceeds to shout instead of speak to the nurses and shows a complete disregard for the ill people who are trying to sleep less than twenty feet away. He clearly either chose the noisiest shoes ever created, and was never told that he has something called in ‘indoor voice’ and really doesn’t need to shout to the nurse sitting three feet away from him because, after all, she isn’t deaf, or he’s just not particularly well mannered.
Rant over. If you’re reading this Dr. Loudmouth Clacky Shoes please sort yourself out.
Ok. Deep breath.
A lot of night shift workers, the permanent ones that is, will often mention the ‘wall’. The wall is a point in the night where you are so tired you have to stop for a few minutes. For me this usually happens around 4am but it varies from person to person. If you can make it through this particular event you can look forward to your ‘second wind’. Second wind is the term given to that inexplicable burst of energy you get once you get through the ‘wall’. Often this burst of energy is accompanied by a type of giddy hysteria, where you will generally find the most ridiculous things ridiculously funny, and some of that energy you’ve suddenly been granted is dispelled through fits of laughter. I’m not sure if there’s a name for this but I quite like the sound of ‘funny 5am’, so we’ll go with that.
After ‘funny 5am’ it’s time to steel yourself and push on with the most difficult part of the shift. The Final Push.
This is by far the worst part of the shift for me. Summoning up the energy to do all those time-dictated jobs that can’t be done before hand, but need doing now. It turns into a race between you and the clock. It happens all of a sudden and if you’re not careful, can catch you completely off guard. It’s a slog and no mistake.
In the end it comes down to personal preference. Yes, the money can be better on nights and yes, you get more time off depending on how many you work. There are no visitors to deal with, and scans and other procedures are rare, usually only in emergencies. and night shifts tend to run to a little more of a routine than day shifts do. But personally, I prefer days. I’m not built for nights. Nights are for sleeping, and other activities. A list on which work doesn’t appear voluntarily.
A colleague of mine put it best this week when she said…
“WORKING NIGHTS IS CRAP”
While I will always do my share of nights along with the rest of the shift-working world, I wholeheartedly agree with what my colleague said, and to be quite honest, I couldn’t have put it better myself!
Dave C. Bannerman.