When You Work The Night Away

So it’s 7:00 p.m. and your friends are meeting at the neighborhood watering hole to celebrate surviving another day, or maybe they’re having dinner with their kids, or even just settling in with a brew for an evening of Dancing With the Stars. And you’re heading out for work. Wait. Heading where? Why would you be working the night shift, and anyway, what kinds of jobs can you find doing that? In fact a great many people do, and for the best of reasons. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, something like 15 million Americans work evening or night shifts, and while a tight job market in the traditional daytime hours may account for some of these workers, many others choose evening and night shift work to supplement other income, to free up daytime hours for school or family responsibilities, or to avoid some of the stresses (commuter traffic in peak hours, for instance) typical of daytime work.

The jobs these night owls find are much more varied than you might imagine. Not everyone who works at night is busy stocking grocery shelves or bussing tables at all-night diners. Hotels and hospitals, among others, by definition are 24/7 facilities, and the night auditor at the desk of your hotel may be spending the quiet time preparing for her morning Hospitality Management classes at the local university. The professional nurses at work at any hospital are likely to rotate through daytime and night shifts, but hospitals equally require a nonprofessional clerical staff for admissions and records around the clock and a custodial and technical staff to keep the environmental systems and the specialized equipment running. Many of the events and processes that keep our economy and infrastructure moving are dependent on around-the-clock preparatory work, and in many cases, work that is deliberately scheduled for evening or overnight hours to take advantage of predictable decrease in traffic patterns.

Highway construction and renovation workers, for instance, are increasingly assigned to evening shifts when it is possible to close traffic lanes that would create congestion in daytime hours. Equally, building construction and remodeling workers may take advantage of night hours to stay ahead of contract schedules. Many cleaning services are strictly night-time business, often moving from one building or office to another to another in the course of one night. In many supermarkets and equally in your corner store, the displays of fresh fruit or warm pastries this morning depend on the delivery and preparation the night before, or the baker who was starting those cinnamon rolls at midnight so they’d be warm and on the counter when you stopped by for your coffee and roll on the way to day job. When the delivery truck brings your catalog order to your door at mid morning, it’s been handled by the pilots and package handlers who moved it in Memphis at midnight so it would be in Denver by 4:00 a.m. and on the delivery truck by 7:00.

Working a night shift schedule regularly presents stresses and raises concerns about the health of employees taking on these working patterns. Day sleep may not be as effective as night sleep, warns workatnight.com, and disruption in sleep patterns can lead to an increased likelihood of chronic fatigue syndrome and the possibility of work errors. For many of those who willingly continue to choose night schedules, though, the advantages of daytime flexibility and increased employment opportunities that night schedules provide outweigh the concerns.