May 16, 2011 (Monday) - Night Work: A Historical Perspective



A day off work today? Not really… When I first started working in blood test-ology back in 1981 we worked from 9am to 5pm on Monday to Friday. We did 9am to midday on a Saturday once a month, and the rest of the time was “on-call”. When I first started as a trainee it was standard practice that on the night when a person was on-call, that person would start work on (say) Monday at 9am and work through to 5pm. They would then stay at work to deal with any emergencies and come home. Should any dire emergency happen during the evening or night, then that person would then go back into work, deal with the emergency and come home again. Back in the day there was a very strict definition of what constituted an emergency (as far as our involvement was concerned), and it was unusual for there to be more than five call-outs during the night. In between call-outs, the person on call could sleep, and it was rare to get called out more than once after midnight. The person who had been on-call would be expected in at work at 9am the next day, and would be expected to do a full day’s work (unless the worst had happened – and that was very rare).
So in theory a person had been on duty for thirty two hours. In practice it was two eight hour shifts separated by a sixteen hour period when they might be called, but otherwise they would do as they pleased. For which they received a full wage for the standard working hours, and (about) two hour’s money for each call into work which lasted less than two hours, after which time a second call’s payment was made. Given that no blood transfusion work was required (that took longer to do!), one could be in and out in less than an hour, and get two hour’s money for less than one hour’s work. And they paid your petrol money and phone rental too.

By the time I started night work it was busier. So much so that I didn’t bother driving home between calls: as soon as I got home I had to go back anyway. So I stayed at work and by a strict application of the rules I found the night work could be quite lucrative. By not wasting time travelling to and fro I could get more calls in the same time period. It wasn’t unusual to get up to eight calls in one night. Which would be about sixteen hour’s money for sixteen hours time given up (if not sixteen hours work). And so by doing regular night shifts one could increase one’s salary by up to fifty per cent.
As time went on, the night and weekend work got busier and busier, and in order to budget effectively, management fixed the rate of pay at eight calls per night. And as we got more and more work after midnight so management allowed us (firstly) to take the afternoon off after a night shift (paid), and then the whole day off. And eventually the whole day before a night session as well. But I for one still managed to sleep most of the night when I was on-call.

At first sight it would seem that we were on a gravy train; two days’ pay for doing nothing at all, and more than a day’s money for doing the night. However, from the point of view of those paying our wages, one got what one paid for. Back in the day we had a robust system. We were able to confidently provide cover twenty four hours a day, every day of the year. People wanted to work because it was good money. People wanted to work on Bank Holidays and at Xmas. People rarely went sick because the money was good. And if they did go sick we were able to cover the sickness, sometimes at only a few hours’ notice.
In retrospect I did far too much work back in those years – sometime doing seventy hours a week; missing family birthday parties and events because the money was so good. In fact we all ran ourselves ragged doing on call because it paid to do so.

Eventually a bean-counting management realised how much money was being spent on out-of-hours provision of cover. I saw the changes coming, cut my hours considerably and I got out. Instead of a lucrative overtime system, people now work a standard thirty seven and a half hour working week. The payments have been slashed, and night work is a contractual obligation for those who were doing night work when the new system came in and for all new staff.
Nowadays when one works a night shift one is not expected in at work on the working days either side of the night shift, but is paid for those hours. And the twelve and a half hours of the night shift are paid at a rate of one-third one’s normal rate. So one gets twelve and a half hours at time and a third. This is sixteen and a quarter hours money.
The bean-counters are happy, but those charged with providing a robust system of cover are not. Personally I’d rather not do the night shift; I’d rather do two day shifts and get fifteen hours’ money. One and a quarter hour’s money is no incentive to do a night shift.
Especially when one bears in mind that it is not on-call work any more; one is expected to work constantly during that shift. And to add insult to injury, those who are on the night work rota have their hours adjusted to be a weekly average of exactly thirty seven and a half hours. Should one offer to cover a night shift (due to unexpected unavailability of staff) one gives up fifteen hours day shift time (two seven and a half hour days) but only does twelve and a half hours at night. One effectively does the firm a favour and ends up owing the firm two and a half hours.

I gave up night work seven years ago, but I still do the occasional one when there is literally no one else available to do it; on average about once every eighteen months. As a special one-off favour to management I’ve offered to help them out of a problem situation tonight.

I’ve not worked all night since 24 March 2009. Let’s see how tonight night goes….

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