I'm not an early riser, I'm not a lark and I am certainly not a morning person. For me the hardest thing about school wasn't the work, nor was it the teachers, the other children or the weight of my bag, it was the getting up. It's not that I need more sleep than the average person, I function perfectly well on eight hours a night and pretty well on far fewer. Nevertheless, getting up in the mornings is not easy for me. If left to my own devices, I default onto an "up at 18:00, bed at 10:00" routine and am overall much happier, even more productive. So, naturally, when it came to looking for summer-jobs, a night shift was the obvious choice. I applied at one of the local supermarkets (not the one I worked for before), went through the usual tedious corporate induction and orientation and was accepted. For the next few months I'm officially a night shift worker.

A Short History of the Night Shift

According to the Holy Bible, God created the universe in six days, only resting on the seventh. Therefore, once he had separated the night from day, he became the first ever night shift worker (unless of course he didn't exist in the first place, but that's for another node). Anyway, things on the night shift front went quiet for a few billion years (not counting owls and the like), until pretty suddenly, humans appeared on the scene. After some initial faffing around, small civilisations arose, these civilisations included people, objects and places of great importance, so important in fact that other humans greatly desired to kidnap, steal or destroy them, and would be far more likely to do so if they found them unguarded. It is unknown if night-guards came before night thieves, after all, unless told otherwise, one might expect even thieves to sleep at night.

The problem with night guards is that if they have been up all day, they are somewhat liable to fall asleep at their post, something that even the threat of execution does not necessarily deal with effectively. The answer came in the form of the "shift." The idea was that each guard would work an eight to twelve hour day, at the end of which his position would be shifted to a new guard, who had spent twelve to sixteen hours resting. This system meant that a place could be continuously guarded 24/7 without too much danger of the guard nodding-off. The idea proved popular and was soon adopted by most military organisations, especially navies where shift work would mean that throughout even the longest voyage there were always some hands on deck at any one time. Even today, it is a standard part of a new recruit's training to be rotated through the three "watches" every so often as it is thought that the practice encourages reliance on the group.

For a very long time that was the way it remained; those who chose a military or pseudo-military life would resign themselves to being up at all sorts of ungodly hours, whilst those who stayed at home, tending the land, would rise with the sun, going to bed when staying awake got too cold or difficult. What changed this, and brought the night shift to civilians was the industrial revolution.

The invention of steam power and its application to manufacturing lead to the founding of factories; great powerhouses that churned out products as fast as the machines could make them. Obviously these machines required tending and maintaining and so did not in fact drive people out of work completely, despite Luddite fears. In fact, the creation of factories and mills lead to a huge influx of people from the countryside into the cities, specifically to work in them! With the growing popularity of gas and later electrical lighting, it obviously seemed astonishingly wasteful for these hubs of productivity to remain open only in daylight hours. Thus, the civil night shift was born. At first, some mill owners would force their employees to work up to 20 hours a day to keep produce coming, but soon more philanthropic and practically minded industrialists such as George Holloway were reducing these marathons to single shifts of ten or even eight hours, borrowing the military technique for keeping their workers fresh and their factories operational.

The increasing urbanisation of the world lead to the establishment of what are now considered the essential services, that is Fire, Ambulance and Hospital, and the Police. In the new 24 hour society it was immediately apparent that these would have to be available all the time. In fact today it is probably hospital staff who work the longest and most unsociable hours, pulling double, even triple shifts as a regular activity.

Nevertheless, an average blue-collar worker until recently would never find themselves worked through the night. The first change to this came with the rise of environmentalism and the gradual increase in the unpopularity of new roads, buildings and particularly building sites. This has lead to a large amount of construction work being carried out at night, the exceptions only being in residential areas where there are some people still sleeping sensible hours. The second change, and the one that has at last ensnared yours truly into being awake right now, was the rise of convenience shopping. With contributing factors such as the decline of family life, the increasing numbers of working women and the vast hoards of single twenty-somethings, it is no longer considered acceptable that Saturday and lunchtimes are the only opportunities to shop. Where once a supermarket would close at perhaps six in the evening, and be re-stocked by the early hours, many are now open late into the night, or even for the full twenty four hours. Naturally these marathons require staff and so nowadays even the world of retail has found itself hiring shift workers.

With increasing globalisation and the twenty-four-hour-day that it implies, it may very well only be a matter of time before considerable numbers of white-collar workers start working through the night with regularity.

Working Nights

There are several advantages to working a night shift, not least among them is the fact that you generally earn more; in my case the basic rate of pay is £5.45 an hour, but with the night shift premium it becomes a far more respectable £6.85. In addition to this, if you happen to be an owl rather than a lark, you may find the hours to be far more comfortable, though on the other hand, you may discover that after a few weeks, you long for sunlight to work by or darkness to sleep in.

If you have decided to work nights there are few things it's useful to plan in advance. Unlike those working days, the world is not designed to cater for you and some changes will have to be made. The first thing to sort out is your sleeping pattern. You are probably used to getting up in the morning only a couple of hours before you need to go to work and generally speaking use this time only for getting washed, dressed, fed etc. Then, when you get home from work in the early evening, you often have time to spend on recreation, housework, shopping, paperwork and the like, often up to around six hours of free time. Working nights can be different. If you want to maintain a social life you will have to organise yourself so that you are awake reasonably early on those evenings you are not working. Some people find that they are able to shift back onto a normal schedule at weekends with no ill effects, others however cannot do this and find that it makes more sense to get up in the late afternoon, going to bed mid-morning soon after they return from work. This can be disorientating at first, but generally people get used to it.

Your diet is also quite important. For reasons involving the circadian rhythms – your body's internal clock – no matter how long you have worked nights for, it will still feel slightly odd and you are likely to feel tired and clammy. This is one reason why nights are often called the graveyard shift – everyone looks and feels rather corpse like. The easiest way to fight this is with high-energy foods and vitamin supplements. Caffeine should probably be avoided, though a coffee in your break isn't going to kill you. Remember, you are not going to be getting much sunlight, especially in winter, and so foods and supplements containing vitamin D are very important. In fact, the low vitamin D intake is one of the major reasons why you should not work night shifts for too long as deficiency has been linked to type 1 and type 2 diabetes, cancer, rickets, and SAD.

Finally some people really cannot work night shifts. If you are the sort of person who springs out of bed before the alarm goes off, throws open the windows and cheerfully whistles "oh what a beautiful morning" over your cornflakes, it is unlikely you will be able to adjust. Neither should you believe that just because you've pulled the occasional all nighter, be it a party, an essay or an Everquest addiction, that night shifts are for you. The occasional caffeine-fuelled marathon is not a good simulation of shift work, which ideally should be conducted without stimulants. In addition, many people find that even though they are comfortable and awake at night, their productivity decreases by as much as 30%.Working nights should obviously not be attempted in conjunction with a day job that will mean you never sleep.

Last Word

Working nights is an interesting experience. There's a certain camaradery between shift workers, and a definite schadenfreude in winding your way home to bed just as everyone else's alarm clocks wake them. Nevertheless, it is not for everyone and can be very tough on your social life and health. It is, though, an institution that is growing more and more commonplace in diverse professions as we move towards a true twenty-four hour society.

Some good tips for surviving night shifts can be found here.


Sainsbury's information pamphlet
own experience