I still remember the very first night on the job at Hewlett-Packard’s main building “on the hill” in Palo Alto, California. Fewer than half of the fluorescent light fixtures were switched on. The slanted rows of skylights that dominated the ceiling were dark. The only sounds were the voices of the half-dozen or so fellow employees chatting and laughing as we all awaited the arrival of the shift supervisor.
The fresh experience of working overnights was something I anticipated with a mixture of curiosity and delight. I looked forward to merging into the nighttime culture of what was not yet known as “Silicon Valley”. This is my most vivid memory of the summer of 1974.
My great-uncle Ivan was the coffee man at a different H.P. plant in Palo Alto–Building 17. He recommended that I apply for work at his company because he had heard they were hiring. Ivan said I would most likely get a job if I checked the application form box next to “graveyard shift”. Better yet, the company paid time and a half to graveyard shift workers. I followed Ivan’s advice and less than a week later, H.P. hired me on as a member of the maintenance staff.
Aside from generous pay and benefits, the corporate culture was very positive and progressive. We employees were eager to come to work because we were treated with the respect given to long-term workers. This was the environment that enabled a life-long love of night shift working.
Part of the beauty of working at H.P. is that they did not subject their employees to rotating shifts–perhaps one of the worst ideas ever to come from other corporations’ managers. The only way to change one’s shift at H.P. was to specifically request it from a higher-up manager.
Eventually, the time came to resign from the company I loved. The decision was difficult, but I really wanted to work in broadcast media. Every job after H.P. was either swing shift or graveyard because those are what I requested. My last radio job was over 30-years as the overnight announcer.
Those of us who prefer the graveyard shift seem to be born into a different breed of homo sapiens. If the company does not have rotating shifts, our circadian clocks eventually adjust to a dark triggered wake cycle and light triggered sleep cycle. Some of us empathize with Count Dracula. We see the dawn and feel the strong urge to go to bed.
The worst type of shift work is rotating shifts. Some of my friends work in heavy industry. They work half of the month during daytime, get an extra day weekend, then work the rest of the month on graveyard. Apparently this practice stems from a misguided sense of fairness to all. My friend Lynn, who works in the steel mill, says rotating shift work is only fair because it makes everybody suffer from sleep deprivation and health problems. These physical symptoms prove to be added dangers to already inherently dangerous heavy industry workplace conditions.
I can only imagine the similar problems medical personnel, police officers, and firefighters suffer when they work under the constraints of rotating shifts. These are the building blocks of severe sleep disorders and heart disease.
Perhaps the best aspect of working the graveyard shift is the opportunity to develop a deep love of the dark hours. There is much beauty and peacefulness when the sky is only illuminated by the stars and the Moon. This serenity is what motivates me to be an early-riser, now that I am retired. The pre-dawn hours feel like the most spiritual time of the clock. They can also be the most productive hours for “creative” folks.
I’ve probably paid a physical price for my love of overnights. Weight gain and stress have been the primary symptoms. On the other hand, the arcane joys of the graveyard shift were worthwhile. Now, I get the best of day and night by being an early-riser.