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Shift work a balancing act

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Krischer Goodman, Cindy
Publication Date: 
9 Feb 2012



Who hasn't appreciated the convenience of picking up a prescription antibiotic at 10 p.m. or calling tech support late at night when your computer freezes? As our lives have become more chaotic, most of us have grown used to 24/7 convenience and having our emergencies handled at all hours.

But for the increasing number of employees who provide late-night services, working outside the traditional daytime work hours takes a huge toll on their health and family life. Today about 15 million Americans - the people who come to our rescue at all hours - are shift workers who navigate the balancing act of marriage, child care and friendships amid irregular sleep and job schedules.

"I'm always exhausted," said Tiffany Sebregandio, an emergency room nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.

Eleven years after starting her nursing career on the night shift, she continues to work 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. "I enjoy it," she said.

Now, with children aged one and five, Sebregandio often spends her night starting IVs or administering CPR to an accident victim and arrives home just in time to have her five-year-old daughter tuck her into bed before Dad drops her at school.

If all goes well, Sebregandio may get a few hours of sleep before she awakes to run errands, pick up her younger son from daycare, prepare dinner and eat with her family before she heads back to the hospital. If a child is sick or her husband works late, she may have to give up sleep and try to squeeze in a catnap later in the day.

"My sleep pattern is all over the place," she said. "But if I worked the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift, I'd never get to see my kids."

Earlier this month, I participated in a blogger roundtable with three people who work non-traditional shifts - a motorcycle cop, a pilot and an emergency medical services worker. All three could be headed to work when the rest of us are slipping under the covers. They spoke about the challenges of making their lives work on the clock and off.

For some, shift work comes with the job choice - truck driver, doctor, police officer, hotel worker. For others, it came about more recently from a career change or their eagerness to snag a position in this horrible job market, even if it means working the less popular shifts.

Shift work used to be mostly concentrated in manufacturing, but the growth of the service economy and the increase of women in the labour force have been behind the increase in jobs with non-traditional hours. Women now make up half of all full-time shift workers, snapping up jobs that better suit their family schedules.

The change is making the home-time structure of the American family more complex, says Harriet Presser, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and author of Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families.

Today, one-third of all dual-earner couples with children include at least one spouse working a non-traditional shift.

-reprinted from the Vancouver Sun