Columns

Yawning to be free

Deirdre McMurdy September 20 1999
Columns

Yawning to be free

Deirdre McMurdy September 20 1999

Yawning to be free

Columns

Deirdre McMurdy

It used to be called “the graveyard shift.” It was the exclusive domain of security guards, custodial staff, nurses and bakers. But while our society and our culture are still geared to daytime activity, a growing number of people work around the clock in an era of global business markets. Currency and stock traders, computer experts, journalists and call-centre employees have all joined the ranks of those who work while others sleep. In fact, about 30 million North Americans now work outside the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

So far, the corporate implications of having two distinct workforces hasn’t been closely examined by the usual pack of management gurus. But whether or not senior executives are aware of it, their night staff is a breed apart. The overnight shift often attracts those slighdy out of step in other aspects of their lives as well. Their presence gives a company a quirkier character than it has in official business hours.

Even driving to work at a time when most people are heading home sets the night crew apart. Traffic is heavier— and more perilous—on Friday mornings, when the bars close in the early morning hours. Muscle cars rev at stoplights and race each other along the highway. And that’s not the only urban, nocturnal wildlife: raccoons, foxes and coyotes nose through garbage cans and skulk through public parks and ravines. A surprising number of people ride bicycles along deserted streets. And why are all those lights blazing in houses and apartment buildings at three o’clock in the morning?

There is a special intimacy among the overnight staffers. Without the constraints of political correctness, jokes are more frequent—and wildly off-colour. The looser operating structure and large pockets of silence in surrounding areas of the building also lead to more personal, reflective conversations—with a confessional aspect. Another reason for the close bond is that people on overnight shifts often don’t have much of a social life. Only others who work those hours appreciate the toll they take and the benefits they offer. Sleep is a favourite topic for discussion, but it’s considered bad form to complain about the lack of it. There is a macho pride among overnight workers, including irreverent references to “dayside scum”—those who work conventional hours.

Stanley Coren, author of the 1996 book Sleep Thieves, says the disruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythms takes a severe toll on the physical and mental health of overnight workers. Fie describes night shifters as “chronically unhappy, continually irritable.” It’s true that things easily get blown out of proportion in those fragile, early hours. For a reporter following a news story, it appears more urgent and more important than otherwise. Routine setbacks become disproportionately frustrating: a jammed photocopier or a misfiring computer become symbolic of the isolation and lack of support in an office in the middle of night.

But Coren’s warnings about the long-term cost of turning the clock on its head overlook the most compelling attraction: freedom. The small nuisance disruptions that plague a typical day job are absent. The telephone isn’t constantly ringing; no one calls impromptu meetings that devour hours of productive time. There is less scrutiny, and most workers are perfectly able to function without it.

But this outlaw contingent poses curious challenges for modern managers focused on the fashionable theme of corporate cultural integration. The structural hierarchy that is adhered to by day is gready diminished at night. The supervisors of a night shift learn to bend the rules and to move with the mutinous spirit that prevails.

Recently, after almost four years, I left a job as business editor of CTV’s Canada AM. It entailed getting up at 2:30 every morning, and reporting to work an hour later. At a time that represents the middle of the night to most people, the staff who work on the show got up, and did all the same things—and more—as people on daytime shifts. But that early alarm bell was also the call of the wild. There was the betting pool where we all placed wagers on how long it would take the lineup editor to start swearing after he entered the newsroom. There was the Dead ffead tape editor who indulged his taste for George Thorogood and the Destroyers every morning around four o’clock. There was the routine slagging of the prep work done during the day. There was an elaborate protocol concerning which on-air staffers had their hair and makeup done at precisely what hour.

It was always interesting to watch the overnight edge soften as the day staff filtered into the newsroom, later in the morning. And then there was the challenge when guests, who normally held daytime jobs, first met the denizens of the night. Because the show goes to air at 6:30 a.m., many of them were treated to wake-up calls from a co-ordinator— whose thick, Chilean accent probably baffled them all the more. Most of the guests arrived—groggy and still fragile— with just minutes to air on live, national television.

Now, it’s time to work a daytime job, like most other people. But a more normal routine will never replace the rush of life off-shift, and the great characters and friends found in the wee small hours of the morning.