Five hours’ sleep between shifts

Those who came before us fought hard foe an eight hour day. Are we going to accept its going?

The following by Matt Bungard  (Sydney Morning Herald  18 January 2019), is about the dying of the tradition of the 40 hour week in Australia, one of the factors that has made Australia one of the worst countries in the OECD, in terms of its quality of life index. This is, the balance between work, rest and leisure. Excessive works hours have come about hand in hand with the rise of underemployment. Both are social problems that demand urgent answers.

You feel awful – very tired, very exhausted. I’d finish my shift at 10pm, I’d get home at about 10.30pm. You’re too switched on from the shift you just finished to go straight to sleep, and then you have to be up again at 5am the next morning.”

Gemma Watson, 25, is a nurse who worked in the emergency department at Liverpool Hospital, in Sydney’s south-west, for 16 months, but the workload and short turnarounds between shifts made her so stressed that she eventually moved to a less-frantic hospital and took part-time hours.

“The change of pace has really done it for me": Gemma Watson moved from Liverpool to Wollongong Hospital.
Photo by Brook Mitichell: Gemma Watson Brook Mitch

Liverpool is one of the busiest hospitals in NSW – quarterly reports from the NSW Bureau of Health Information show 22,000 cases presenting themselves to the emergency room in each three-month period.

Due to shift patterns known as “late earlies”, Ms Watson often found herself back at work within seven hours of leaving the night before. It was not uncommon for nurses to be rostered on a morning shift the day after doing an afternoon shift.  She estimates she was getting, on average, five hours of sleep between shifts.

“Because of the shift work it was really difficult to find time with my partner, my family and my friends,” she said. “I’d come home from work and wouldn’t want to do anything. I was so physically and mentally drained.”

She says she was “never at the hospital for eight hours”, with parking, walking from one end of the hospital to the other, or an emergency near her finish time all factors in arriving early or staying late.

Historically, the eight-hour work day has been a cornerstone of the Australian labour force for more than 150 years – but plenty among us never come close to a 40-hour week.S

“I was starting to feel a bit isolated,” Ms Watson said. “I had a cold I just couldn’t get rid of, I was getting headaches which I never got, I was getting them constantly. My legs and my shoulders were always hurting.”

Ms Watson recently accepted a part-time role at Wollongong Hospital.

“I’m feeling much better. I don’t have to worry about that 30- to 45-minute commute with traffic, or worrying about falling asleep at the wheel,” she said.

Of 392 occupations, library assistants and museum technicians have the shortest working week among full-time workers, averaging about 38 hours a week.

Miners recorded the longest hours, spending almost 62 hours a week on average at work.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that roughly one-third of Australians work between 35 and 44 hours, regarded as a “standard work week”. That number was 58 per cent when the data was first recorded in 1971, and has been declining steadily since.

James says financial services workers are well compensated.
Photo by Nic Walker: James

James* works as investment banker in mergers and acquisitions, a field notorious for long hours. In crunch periods, he said he would have worked more than 100 hours in one week, getting just an hour or two of sleep during 18 hours in the office.

“Managing a lifestyle outside of work can be very difficult, for the first couple of years especially,” he said.

“People know what they’re signing up for. You’re typically an analyst for two or three years and then you get promoted – hours tend to get better as you get more senior.”

James said that, because the nature of the work is extremely confidential, teams of bankers have to be kept very lean – with few rungs between the most junior and senior staff on the ladder.

With staff frequently staying until late at night, meal allowances and a lack of sleep made for an unhealthy lifestyle – but James said the corporate culture had shifted in the past couple of years, with fridges and freezers now jam-packed with ready-made healthy meals, and management encouraging staff to go to the gym.

Despite the gruelling job, James says he loves the adrenalin that comes with “crunch weeks” and would “never complain to anyone” about the nature of the business.

“The nature of the job is nobody’s filling out timesheets or spreadsheets. At the end of the day, people are pretty well compensated. You’re earning six figures in the first year out of university. There’s no violins playing in the background – but there is a lot of pressure.”

* James asked not to be identified.

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