People & Places

Night’s Watch: While you’re snug in bed, there’s an army of workers toiling at night

Mid-week, 2 a.m.: Chances are, you’re sound asleep. Unless, that is, you’re among the two percent or so of Canadians who work the night shift. The guy manning the fast-food drive-through, the emergency room doctor, the taxi dispatcher: the list of people who work from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. is long and various.

Workplaces that bustle from nine to five can seem cavernously empty at night. Step into a 24/7 suburban grocery store at 3 a.m., and you’ll likely see a sole cashier, iPod providing companionship, who holds down the customer-service fort. In the dimly lit aisles, you might spot a single shopper picking up a bag of milk on the way home from — well, who knows where.
Statistics Canada says 2.1 percent of Canadians regularly worked a night (or graveyard) shift as their job in 2011. Of those, 68 percent were male and 32 percent were female.

Overnighters are concentrated in such sectors as accommodation, food services, manufacturing, and health care. Those who like the shift frequently describe themselves as lifelong night owls and say they enjoy the less-pressured pace, the higher wage that can come with night work, the often solitary atmosphere or, if they’re part of a small team, the family-like feel.

Others dislike it. Some say it disrupts their social life — bar-hopping is not an option if you have to punch the clock in two hours’ time. And some find night work leaves them edgy, out of sync with the rest of the world.

It may also cause them to be out of sync with their health. Research suggests that working night shifts over many years may increase the risk of heart attacks, depression, and Type 2 diabetes. Studies have paid particular attention to a potential increased risk of breast cancer among women who work the night shift. “I think there’s emerged a pretty good consensus that it’s probably causing breast cancer in these women,” says Paul Demers, director of Ontario’s Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto.  What is not yet certain, he says, is the extent of the risk and whether it’s limited to people who have worked nights for many years.

Steve Love works to set up the Canadian Tire Centre at night for the next day's events. Photo: Bill Grimshaw
Steve Love works to set up the Canadian Tire Centre at night for the next day’s events. Photo: Bill Grimshaw

Demers says the reasons for increased risk of such chronic diseases as cancer are complex but seem to be rooted in the disruption of our circadian rhythms, which, for millennia, have dictated such basic physiological processes as when to sleep and eat. Disrupting those rhythms can change hormone levels.  “Those kinds of things have led us to look at cardio-vascular and other diseases that might be impacted by shift work.”

Whether it’s tough on the body and mind or not, plenty of Ottawa folks work the graveyard shift. For some, it’s a long-time affair; for others, it’s a way station before landing a daytime job. We talked with six of them about the ups and downs of working at night.

Sarah Sullivan | 29 Server, Elgin Street Diner

I’ve been working overnight for five years. By nature, I’m a night owl and I prefer working then. It’s entertaining. People are expecting a different kind of service — they expect you to be real. You don’t have to censor yourself so much. [“Are you at least a little less miserable now?” she jokes with one of about a half-dozen customers in the place in the wee hours of a Monday morning.] In the day, we get lots of business people. They come in, order, that’s it. At night, you get characters. Maybe some are slightly lonely — they want to talk. One man comes in almost every night. He’s kind of childlike. He likes to drink coffee and chat. You get people who are ending their day or starting their day. You get first-year university kids, the bar closers. And you get bar staff — they’re super-awesome.  Working nights, the social part of my life has taken a dive — no one calls me to go for beers. But I’m married now and moving to a different time in my life. Friends call me and say, “Come over for a barbecue.”

Sarah Sullivan, 29, Server, Elgin St. Diner. Photo: David Trattles

Diego Setka | 62 Baker, Rideau Bakery

I’ve always been involved in food. I’ve worked the night shift here for 40 years, and I like the job but not the hours. It’s the nature of the business. People want the baking ready in the night. You never get a good rest because nights are made for sleeping, not the day. Everybody here is an immigrant. Canadians are smart — they don’t take these jobs. A bakery is like a time warp. Nothing ever changes. We still have the same recipes as when the bakery opened 85 years ago. That machine there is used to divide the dough — it’s 100 years old. The good thing about working nights is when you come to work, there’s never any traffic. When I finish in the morning, I go to the bar, then sleep a bit later. I do what any normal person does.  I’ll work a couple more years, then retire.

Diego Setka, 62, baker, Rideau Bakery. Photo: David Trattles
Diego Setka, 62, baker, Rideau Bakery. Photo: David Trattles

Steve Love | 24 Team Member Canadian Tire Centre

I’ve been doing this since 2013. When I have night shifts coming up, I stay up late playing video games to get my body ready for it. Crews are generally friendlier in the day. At night, they can get stressed because they’re up past their bedtime. Driving home really early in the morning after a shift can be a lonely feeling, like you’re the only guy in the world. It’s eerie, but I kind of like it at the same time.

Steve Love, 24, Team Member, Canadian Tire Centre. Photo: Bill Grimshaw
Steve Love, 24, Team Member, Canadian Tire Centre. Photo: Bill Grimshaw

Blake Rainville | 33 Maintenance Operator, Shaw Centre

I work two or three nights from eight to eight, then get a couple of days off. I’ve been doing it since 2011. I monitor the heating and air conditioning, set up equipment for conferences the next day. Do I get lonely? Sometimes, but I can get a lot done without being disturbed, and I’m a bit anal about getting things right, so it’s nice to be alone. When I’m off during the week, I can spend time with our daughter and we don’t have to spend money on a sitter. After working all night, I sleep from when I get home till 5 o’clock. You do feel tired a lot, so I take melatonin to get a deep sleep and use earplugs to block out traffic noise. If you go out with your friends at night, you leave early, have one less beer. The best part about working when no one’s around is I don’t have to shave every day.

Blake Rainville, 33, Maintenance Operator, Shaw Centre. Photo: Bill Grimshaw
Blake Rainville, 33, Maintenance Operator, Shaw Centre. Photo: Bill Grimshaw


Marcus Ward | 36 Technologist, Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre

I’ve been working this shift for 10 years because that’s when people are trying to sleep. If we don’t sleep well, all kinds of things go wrong. We need sleep for memory consolidation, to flush toxins from our brain, for emotional balance. The immune system depends on deep sleep. Every night of the week, there’s probably 50 people in a sleep lab in Ottawa. The vast majority sleep very well here — it’s surprising. We interview them about their sleep habits when we’re wiring them up, and then we monitor for things like brainwaves, eye movement, pulse. I like working at night because it’s quieter, you’re not part of the mob. But we’re not really built for this, and by the end of the shift, I’m sleepy and it’s hard to think straight. From three to four in the morning, when everyone else is sleeping like a baby, that’s the lull for me. I feel groggy, so I’ll get up and put away equipment or use the dumbbells that a co-worker brought in.

Marcus Ward, 36, Technologist, Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Photo: Bill Grimshaw
Marcus Ward, 36, Technologist, Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Photo: Bill Grimshaw

Eric Patenaude | 33 Co-owner and manager, La Ferme Gillette

I work two 12-hour night shifts every couple of weeks so that our regular night crew can have a break. I’d rather be at home in bed with my wife, but it is nice and quiet here at night, and there’s lots to do. I milk twice every shift — that takes about six hours — and there’s milking, handling calvings, and ensuring livestock are clean and fed. I’m training my dog [a six-month-old border collie, Elsa, that trots confidently across the pitch-black farmyard and through the cavernous cattle barns, rubbing noses with the occasional cow] to help move the cattle. I grew up on this farm, and I’d rather work with animals than humans any day. You see a cow born and then work with her till she’s old, and then there’s more calves. Nine family members work here. My grandfather bought the farm from his father and was a role model to all of us. He wanted the farm to continue in the family, and he transmitted his passion to us. That motivates us the most.

Eric Patenaude, 33, co-owner and manager of La Ferme Gillette. Photo: David Trattles
Eric Patenaude, 33, co-owner and manager of La Ferme Gillette. Photo: David Trattles