Graveyard Shift: What’s it Like Working Nights?

For the first in this eye-opening series of interviews with night workers, Cordelia Fellowes hears the dark truth about how damaging night shifts can be when working as a journalist for an international broadcasting company…

I spoke to Juliette, a 43-year-old journalist and broadcaster from London, who has worked at her current organisation for almost twenty years. For the first seven of those years she worked nights, more or less continuously. This is her account of that time.

“When I joined the company I was assured that, although I had no choice in working nights, it was a prestigious and respected role and that I would easily adapt to the unsocial hours. I was young, energetic and I had no partner or children at that time. I believed them or rather, I wanted to believe them.

On average, I would work four night shifts per week. That would be followed by four days off, then four early shifts, then another four days off and then back on to four nights. This cycle continued for the entire seven years and I can say with absolute certainty that at no point did I adapt.

Sleeping during the day – especially when you live in a flat in London – is near enough impossible. Even with the use of ear plugs, I would be woken by the door bell ringing (several times a day – almost always a delivery person getting the wrong bell); traffic; people in neighbouring flats and the telephone ringing. On a good day (regardless of what shift I’d worked) I would get between four and six hours of badly broken sleep. I believe it was trying to sleep during daylight hours that resulted in me becoming an exceptionally light sleeper, something I continue to be to this day.

Working nights affects physical health

My diet suffered also. I have always been slim, but during this time I gained considerable weight, mainly down to the fact that I no longer ate at regular times, but also because I was snacking on so much junk food. During my night shifts I would drink cans of full strength cola and eat chocolate bars loaded with sugar. Outside of work, I was a conscientious about my diet and educated about nutrition, but I just couldn’t get through a night shift without sweets and fizzy drinks.

Other than quick sugar fixes, I got through the shifts by having power naps – though I often found that an hour’s sleep would make me feel worse than no sleep at all and I stopped doing this after a while. The office would be full of people sleeping under desks or stairs – anywhere they could find to get some peace. People would bring in airline pillows and blankets, scrounging some space to lie down if only for a few minutes. It was a bizarre sight.

The effects of my irregular sleep and poor diet were almost immediate. For a long period of time I was an insomniac and as a result I have tried almost every sleeping pill available, all of which stopped working after periods of prolonged use and one of which made me hallucinate. I quickly developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a condition I still have today, though I manage to control the more severe symptoms through a special diet.

I went to my doctors a few months in to the job and was told that I must stop working nights. When I relayed this to my manager, he arranged an appointment with our organisation’s internal doctor. They said exactly the same thing – that I must stop working nights immediately, or else risk watching my already deteriorating health get a lot worse. Both of these doctor’s opinions were over ruled by my manager. This was to happen many more times during the course of my time working nights.

At no point did management express concern for my health, quite the opposite in fact.

I was bullied by my managers

In hindsight I see now that I was being bullied by my managers. ‘You’ll let the team down’, ‘We’re relying on you’ – such statements seemed innocuous at the time, but I was being manipulated. My complaints were always brushed aside and I was made to feel like a burden if I ever mentioned wanting to change jobs or leave. I should have gone to my union, but I was naïve and I still believed that the job carried enough prestige to make all the suffering worth it.

People of course asked me why I persisted in my job. After all, I was miserable most of the time, clearly unhealthy and slowly becoming more and more of a recluse, as my energy levels did not allow for me to socialise. On the few occasions that I did go out and get drunk – foolishly thinking that the alcohol would enable me to sleep through the following day – I would end up feeling even worse, hungover and more tired than ever. My friends and family all begged me to leave my job, or else insist that I change roles to normal working hours, but I didn’t.

During this time I missed countless social events, not to mention the opportunity to meet someone and form a relationship.. I think it’s no coincidence the majority of people I worked with were single. There were several women who lamented the fact that they’d put their careers before starting a family and were now too old and worn out to have children. I did know a couple of men who had families at home, but I have no idea how they made it work.

Night shifts push you to the limit

A few years in my health deteriorated so much that during a ten day holiday in Marrakesh, I didn’t go to the loo the entire time I was there. By the time I saw a doctor, I begged them to give me Movicol (a strong laxative) but it did nothing. Back at home, I resumed work and a healthy diet but I was still totally constipated. In the end I had to beg a gastroenterologist for treatment to force a bowel movement – something that was to happen many times more over the following months. At this time I also tried hypnotherapy; drugs for diabetics (due to a common side effect of going to the loo a lot); anti-depressants and several colonoscopies. My skin was almost grey by now and I had a perpetual low mood and my hair would often fall out.

Of course, one could argue that I was just unhealthy, that these symptoms had nothing to do with night shift work. That was much my way of reasoning until I went to a surgery near my work and the practitioners there said they saw so many night workers from my organisation, for exactly the same problems, they could practically exist for their treatment alone. It was like a conspiracy – nobody talked about it, but we were all so ill and all for the same reason.

Working nights won’t make you rich

Unbelievably the money wasn’t that much more for working nights. I think it averaged out at about an extra £20 a shift. It certainly wasn’t the money that made me keep doing it… It was the fear that I’d be going backwards if I insisted on a change. In the end though I did, and as I thought, I did have to take a step back. But I met my husband, had two children and life moved on.

I still work here and I worry constantly that they’ll ask me to resume to night work but if they do, I’ll quit. I don’t know what I’d do instead but there’s no way I could handle it now – not with two young kids and being my age… I feel exhausted! I’m still a terrible sleeper. I wake up every night and can’t get back to sleep for an hour, sometimes more. It’s something I’ve never managed to get back to normal sadly…”

Names have been changed