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In the dark

In the dark

Last year, a veteran IT manager who had spent her career working traditional business hours at a California entertainment company switched to a shift that ended at midnight. It was an eye-opener. 'You do nothing but sleep and work on the days you work. You really feel that you have nothing to do with the 'business' of the business anymore. It was the most isolating experience professionally I have ever had,' she says.

Last year, a veteran IT manager who had spent her career working traditional business hours at a California entertainment company switched to a shift that ended at midnight. It was an eye-opener. "You do nothing but sleep and work on the days you work. You really feel that you have nothing to do with the 'business' of the business anymore. It was the most isolating experience professionally I have ever had," she says. For decades, many IT night-shift workers have echoed similar sentiments. Some people prefer to work during the wee hours. But even die-hard night owls struggle with the physical and psychological demands of working when everyone else is asleep.

While it's difficult to estimate how many IT professionals are on the job after dark, their numbers are likely to multiply. "Increasingly, multinational companies are centralizing their applications and related infrastructures to achieve lower operating costs and better systems integration. Round-the-clock IT operations are often essential to these global initiatives," says Paul Hamerman, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

The Fatigue Factor

Studies show that night-shift workers sleep less than people who work during the day. When fatigue sets in, productivity can plummet. Changing sleep hours on days off can increase the effect.

"That's like going to Europe for the weekend. If your body is usually asleep at a time when you now have to be awake and on the job, you'll feel drowsy and be more prone to accidents and mistakes," says John Eickholt, a physician who is medical director of the Worthington Sleep Wake Center in Columbus, Ohio.

Other hardships reported by night workers are rooted in feeling disconnected from management, especially during shifts when few managers are on hand.

"What often happens is that people become a team that operates independently of the company," says Betsy Connelly, president of Circadian Technologies Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based research and consulting firm specializing in extended hours operations. "That can lead to creative ideas, but also to an adversarial relationship with the rest of the company."

That animosity can heat up if night-shift workers sense that they aren't being heard. Renee Cornair, a computer analyst who works from 8:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. at The Orange County Register, a daily newspaper with headquarters in Santa Ana, Calif., says that she routinely e-mails managers and associates to report issues that crop up during the night and to suggest resolutions.

"The problem is that people are overwhelmed by e-mail, so it's difficult to get them to read those communiqués," Cornair says, adding that important information from management can also slip through the cracks when meetings are held when night workers are sleeping. "Without communication, you're cut off from the rest of IT, from knowing what the business needs are, what projects are moving forward, what the timelines are, what the service levels are evolving to," she says.

Resolving thorny technical problems without the help of supervisors can be another source of stress. "You can't just know what to fix. You have to know why it works and how to apply it to different situations," explains Rishi Maharaj, a help desk technician on the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at Willow CSN Inc., a Miramar, Fla.-based company that provides virtual call center services.

What to Do

The following are steps that IT managers can take to help their night-shift crews be more productive and content:

Recognize the night shift's achievements. "They save our butts while we're sleeping," says Christopher Faulkner, CEO of C I Host Inc., a Web hosting and data center management company in Bedford, Texas. "During the day, everyone can congratulate someone who does a good job. But you have to make an effort to reward the night guys."

Don't let low morale fester. Connelly advises gauging employees' moods by conducting a confidential employee survey. In particular, look at why employees take sick days. "According to our surveys, only one-third of employee absences are related to being sick," she says. "Find out why they're really out."

Keep them busy. According to Circadian Technologies, the more idle time night workers have, the higher their rate of absenteeism. Connelly suggests setting work schedules around predictable ebbs and flows in work volume. If that's not feasible, look for ways that employees can fill their free time constructively. For example, C I Host recently offered a cash bonus to graveyard-shift workers who revised one of the company's online manuals during their idle hours.

Watch those shift times. Because of physiology, most people experience a lull in alertness between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. That means if you drive to or from work during that stretch, you have a greater risk of being in a traffic accident, Connelly says.

Change schedules with care. Frequent switching between day and night shifts can wreak havoc with the body clock. If you must rotate shifts, Eickholt says, let employees work for two to three months on one shift and then move them to a later shift.

At Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc., computer operations employees change shifts every four months. "We like to give them at least one month's notice. If they have a two-working-spouse family or a child they need to take care of, they can make adjustments," says Ed Zolcinski, director of worldwide data center operations. "That's probably one of the most important things we do for them." The company says its annual employee opinion survey shows that employees are satisfied with this arrangement.

Create a healthful work environment. Eickholt suggests these energy-boosting measures:

- Install full-spectrum lighting that's as bright as possible, without compromising comfort and safety.

- To keep drowsiness at bay, provide food choices such as fruits, vegetables and nuts rather than sugary snacks.

- Encourage employees to move around. Even short walks across the room can help ward off sleepiness.

Finally, tell new night-shift workers what to expect. "Make sure people understand what this kind of commitment to the schedule means," says the entertainment company IT manager, who requested anonymity. "Make sure it's the right fit for the right people."

Artunian is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, Calif. Contact her at jartunian@sbcglobal.net.

SIDEBAR

While You're Sleeping

- Night workers get an average of five hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. That's two hours less than the minimum amount recommended by sleep experts.

- Up to 15 percent of night-shift workers suffer from sleep apnea, a potentially fatal condition, compared with 2 percent to 3 percent of daytime workers.

- Employee turnover in night-shift operations is 10 percent, compared with 3 percent for U.S. companies overall.

- Absenteeism among the nighttime workforce is 9 percent, compared with 3 percent for daytime workers.

- When night-shift employees select their own schedules, their absenteeism rate goes down to 8 percent.

Source: Circadian Technologies Inc -- Computerworld (US)

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