Late-Shift Worker's Lament: 'It's Killing Me'

Many businesses no longer shut down at dusk — and workers often face a sleep deficit as they fit into different shifts. Here, a Chinese broker sleeps on her desk at the Shanghai Stock Exchange. i i

Many businesses no longer shut down at dusk — and workers often face a sleep deficit as they fit into different shifts. Here, a Chinese broker sleeps on her desk at the Shanghai Stock Exchange. China Photos/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption China Photos/Getty Images
Many businesses no longer shut down at dusk — and workers often face a sleep deficit as they fit into different shifts. Here, a Chinese broker sleeps on her desk at the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

Many businesses no longer shut down at dusk — and workers often face a sleep deficit as they fit into different shifts. Here, a Chinese broker sleeps on her desk at the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

China Photos/Getty Images

Sleep deprivation has been in the news this week — it's a particular problem for air traffic controllers, who often work long graveyard shifts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 15 percent of Americans do some type of shift work.

A request on NPR's Facebook page asking people to share their own stories of working on the night shift brought more than 2,000 responses.

We talked to some of those folks to learn more — and below, you can find some of the comments they wrote in response to our Facebook post.

For instance, here's some of what Collin Lowry told us:

I work nights at KFC restaurant Help Desk. 6pm to 3am. I help the employees troubleshoot computer problems. Naps are allowed during lunches but certainly not during shifts. How do I cope going to school full time and not working? The answer is ... I don't. It's killing me working so late, but I am 19 and it's a good job.

Tina Nguyen says she is a night-shift ER military doctor, working four to six shifts a week. And no naps are allowed, she says:

We cope by watching movies or playing games when it's slow. I try to stay up on my nights off, but with the rest of the world with normal hours, it really becomes a pain to have to interfere [with] my sleep to accommodate them.

Paris Huang wrote:

I am an International Broadcaster of Voice of America's Chinese service, headquartered in D.C. In order to broadcast to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at their local prime news time, we have to work from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m., in order to meet the deadline at 7 a.m., which is 7 p.m. over there.

How do I cope? I take pills during the day and try to sleep, which in the long term is not good for my health. Sometimes even the pill doesn't work and I am kept awake by the sunlight, I would go to work with only 2 or 3 hours of sleep.

And Alan Hinostroza said: "I'm doing road construction on the I-15 in Utah, and I don't believe that napping is part of the job description!"

Of course, the staff of Morning Edition knows a little bit about working in the wee hours. Here's a short essay by our own Lindsay Totty, describing what it's like to work the overnight shift at NPR:

A Shift Worker's Priorities: Coffee, And Dark Curtains

For anyone working an overnight shift, the phrase "catching some Z's" takes on a whole new meaning. It's no different for the "vampire staff" of Morning Edition. Here, sleep is coveted, and the more we get, the more we desperately crave.

We all have our own strategies for making sure we arrive at work ready to cover the day's news. Some of us sleep in shifts: We go straight home and collapse right onto our beds, wake up in the afternoon to take care of one or two errands, and then take one more power nap before going to work.

When I work the overnight, I try to do all my sleeping during the day so that I can go out and see my "mere mortal" friends at night. Since it's right before work, I can't quite enjoy happy hour at the local bar as much as they do, for obvious reasons.

The overnight staff does get time for a meal during our shift, but it's up to us to make sure it's nutritious. By the time we arrive at the office, our favorite deli is long closed for the night.

Some of my colleagues cook all their dinners for the week over the weekend and bring their dishes to the office in airtight containers. Others call up the late-night pizza place, which gets most of its business from college students. In the meantime, we're putting the pizza delivery guy's kids through college. And so the cycle begins anew.

At most offices, people probably gather around the water cooler and discuss their favorite TV shows, or make small talk about the weather. Since we rarely even see the sun, our small talk involves comparing the blackout curtains on our windows instead.

When new, young producers are broken in on the overnight shift, I watch as they drag themselves in day after day, until one day they stroll in with a newfound spring in their step. I can tell it's because they've finally made the all-important investment in blackout curtains.

As the night goes on, the coffeepot is refreshed over and over. The first batch is made around midnight when producers like me come in. That pot first starts to get stale just in time for the hosts to arrive three hours later.

Being an experienced journalist means being an experienced coffee maker. Our hosts sometimes provide the gourmet beans, from the top shelf of the supermarket aisle. We ride the caffeine rush to meet deadlines and get late-breaking stories on the air. The show begins, and about halfway through, someone makes a run to the nearby coffee shop as it opens and brings back a bounty. It's a relief to no longer need to make coffee for ourselves.

In the morning, the staff on the day-side shift comes in and takes the reins of the show from the overnight team. As those of us on the overnight take off, there's a certain pleasure in knowing that while our day is done, the rest of the city is just getting started.

As I walk down streets crowded with commuters, I almost feel sorry for the people going in the opposite direction.

I usually bring a music player, so I can release my mind from thoughts of the workday. But sometimes, I bring a portable radio so I can listen to what our show sounds like from your side of the speakers.

Lindsay Totty is a production assistant at Morning Edition.

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