Working the Night Shift

In our postindustrial and highly diverse and urbanized world, many people navigate life during unconventional hours.

One of the notable often-overlooked group that occupies this space are referred to as “night owls,” “night people,” and “night workers.”

In principle, night owls, are people who “come alive” at night. We see them on the street, running, walking their dogs, at the 24 hour gyms, and in the bars and restaurants we may frequent. They are often the regular patrons or clients at the places where night workers work and form part of the street culture we might encounter.

Night people can include both the night owls, and people who labor during the night time hours. The latter category, often referred to as night shift workers, are the individuals who chose or are forced to make their income during the nocturnal hours of the day.

Men and women who spend the majority of their days living and working during normal business hours rarely encounter night workers. Unless your partner, relative, or friend or acquaintance works at night, or we have to stay late at work, or are out at a bar or coming home from a restaurant or party late at night, and  especially when we are tucked away, mostly safe, and ensconced in our own domiciles, night shift people almost seem invisible.

Are night workers different from those of us who choose to live or work primarily during the day or evening hours? Both anecdotal and empirical evidence seems to suggest as much.

Who are these people & in what contexts to they work?

Although some night workers engage in so-called unconventional, deviant, or criminal occupations like sex work, and all manner of street crime, most night shift workers make their living performing working class jobs and are part of the nighttime economy.

They are also predominantly concentrated in a handful of economic sectors or industries (e.g., Hospitality, Entertainment, Transportation, Emergency Services, Call Centers, Manufacturing and Production).

More specifically night shift workers can include EMTs, nurses, doctors, home health care aids, janitors, cleaners, police officers, correctional officers, and firefighters.  It could be the clerk at a 24-hour retail grocery store, the individual restocking shelves at CVS, or the person you encounter during a late-night taxi or Uber ride.

We also encounter these individuals who labor in the mass transportation sector, like bus drivers and subway personnel,  (not to mention airplane pilots, flight attendants and all manner of ground crew) that operate in most large urban environments 24 hours a day.

Most importantly, however we see these people in the restaurants, bars, and food preparation industry (including bartenders, to servers, to chefs/cooks and dishwashers).

It’s not just the service sector that employs men and women who work at night. We often fleetingly observe these people doing road and highway repair.

That package that you ordered yesterday that almost magically shows up on your doorstep in the morning didn’t just get there through some process that involved fairies and goblins.

Advantages of working at night

Working nights can provide identifiable benefits for some people who choose to make their living during this time period.

In some contexts, night shift workers are paid higher (i.e., shift premiums) than other employees who work during the days and evenings.

Alternatively working the night shift might be preferred because this means a steady versus a rotating shift. This may ease the challenges of providing adequate coverage for taking care or loved ones like school age children or aging parents, or this timeslot may work well with going to school during the day.

Because there is often less traffic at night, it is sometimes easier for night workers to commute to their jobs.

Some men and women prefer to work at night because they find that the people that they deal with during those hours are more relaxed and amiable then coworkers, clients, and customers who are hurried during the day.

Sometimes night shifts are quieter than day and evening shifts, and thus the work situation is less stressful and workers can maybe even sneak off to get a nap

Finally, if it is a choice between working a job at night and no job at all, then for many people night shift is the only alternative they have to put food on the table, keep a roof over their head and provide for their loved ones.

Difficulties for people who work at night

Although the benefits of nighttime work are acknowledged, it’s crucial to address the shortcomings of this work arrangement.

To begin with, if night workers don’t have their own means of transportation, then they need to rely on others (i.e., friends, relatives, co-workers, etc.) to get them to work or public transportation which is slower and often less reliable.

Moreover, depending on the nature of their work, night workers may need better lighting, noise control, and ergonomic designs for machinery they operate or chairs they may sit at than day shift workers.

Night shift work can disrupt a person’s social and family life. It often means that these types of workers see less of their partners and children. Then again, some partnerships work seems to survive longer, when both partners rarely engage each other.

Above all are the health implications of working at night. A significant body of scholarly research, suggests that working at night can disrupt circadian rhythms, posing health risks.

Without a doubt working at night screws up your body, including sleep disturbances, obesity, and mental health problems. Additionally, working at night is often associated with increased safety challenges, especially in healthcare, transportation, and manufacturing settings.

Many people who work at night,  are frequently sleep deprived. This is caused by numerous factors, including an inability to get proper rest during non-working hours, poor eating and exercise habits. They can be irritable and may make mistakes because of this situation. They say that working at night cuts a few years off a “normal” person’s life.

Thinking ahead

Identifying the challenges that night workers face may help us to better understand the individuals we encounter at this time of the day. This might better enable us to develop and/or maintain empathy with others in this world. It’s not just the average person, but policymakers need to consider the needs and challenges of night shift workers when creating labor laws and regulations. Meanwhile, in order to better manage the night time economy, some jurisdictions have established deputy or night mayors. The effectiveness of these position is yet to be known.  Information on the intersection between work and the work environment is essential for effective policy development, economic vitality and the general mental and physical health of our population.

Photo Credit

Photographer: gato-gato-gato

Title: night shift at Starbucks