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

Originally published on April 22, 2011 10:35 am

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:

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This week, we've been hearing about fatigue among air traffic controllers who often work graveyard shifts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has it that some 15 percent of Americans do shift work outside the standard nine-to-five. That's true of many of us here on MORNING EDITION, which makes us that much more curious about others on the night shift.

A callout on Facebook got us more than 2,000 responses, and we called a few of them back.

Mr. COLLIN LOWRY (Help Desk, KFC): My name's Collin Lowry. I live in Louisville, Kentucky. I found this really great internship doing computer troubleshooting work.

Dr. TINA NGUYEN (Physician, Military Officer): My name is Tina Nguyen, and I am a family medicine physician who is currently in the military. I am a captain.

Mr. PARIS HUANG (Broadcaster, Voice of America, China): My name Paris Huang. I am an international broadcaster of Voice of America's Chinese service. We have to match to the Asian's prime news time.

Mr. ALAN HINOSTROZA (Truck Driver): My name is Alan Hinostroza. I'm a truck driver for a road construction crew. Sometimes we work night shifts. Sometimes we work day shifts.

Mr. LOWRY: In the daytime, you know, you always have, like, a professional environment. But in late shift, you can be more yourself.

Dr. NGUYEN: We've got a pretty good crew at night. So we keep each other awake by playing games. One of our techs actually brings in his Xbox and we play "You Don't Know Jack."

Mr. LOWRY: It would seem that when you get home, it would be really easy to fall asleep. But it's not always the case, anyways, because it's morning, you know, the light's coming in. So when I get home, I probably don't even fall asleep till about three or four hours after my shift.

Mr. HUANG: I used to try to drink some alcohol, like red wine or something that could help me fall asleep. But I figure it's not really healthy that way. And I tried to take pills.

Mr. HINOSTROZA: I'm against that. Sleep comes naturally to me. I guess I don't understand people that need to take nighttime aids. Besides, if you see those commercials, they've got some side effects, like nighttime wackiness.

Mr. LOWRY: Being a 19-year-old kid in college, you know, people expect you to go to parties, things like that. Hey, Collin, you do want to go to a party on Saturday? Nope. Sorry. I have to work all night. Luckily, I found some friends who have the same schedule as I do, and we basically just hang out in the wee morning hours. And that's about all the interaction we get.

Mr. HINOSTROZA: I have difficulty staying asleep sometimes because, just as you're on the night schedule, your kids aren't on that same schedule. And when they say, hey, dad, come on in color with me, you can't really tell them no. That's the reason I do what I do, is for the love of my family.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Only Sleeping")

THE BEATLES (Rock Band): (Singing) When I wake up early in the morning...

MONTAGNE: Late shift workers Alan Hinostroza, Collin Lowry, Paris Huang and Tina Nguyen. They were just a few of the 2,000 listeners who wrote us on Facebook. You can read more at the NPR Facebook page and read an essay by one of our own producers about his experiences overnight.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Only Sleeping")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Please don't wake me, no, don't shake me. Leave me...

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.