IT Policies

Night-shift boredom on the help desk

Jeff Dray has worked some graveyard shifts on the help desk, when duties are lighter and boredom has a chance to set in. How do you cope when you need to stay alert but everyone you know is at home fast asleep?

When you are working the night shift, you don’t have many calls, and you have finished all those exciting little projects that the boss left for you when he sauntered out the door at five P.M., how do you stay awake?

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It’s an important question because if you are bored or sleepy a caller will notice it, and your credibility as an adviser on technical matters depends on sounding believable. In these long hours you need to keep yourself not just awake but active. I strongly believe that humor is a great tool for keeping the brain active. Over the years, we played some pretty silly games to keep ourselves awake during those long dark nights. Thankfully I don’t have to do those shifts anymore.

We played word games. A favorite was played like this: Someone would choose a word and give it to the team. The rest of the team then had to try to use the word in a help desk call in a meaningful way. Obviously, the word selected would have no relevance to work, so you needed a certain amount of imagination to win. The prize for getting a successful word into the call was that you got to pick the next word to be used. The rules were simple, no obvious obscenities, the word had to be used in a help context, not just blurted out randomly and used once, the team had to accept that the usage was correct and not only within the letter of the rules, but also in the spirit of the game. This led to some hilarious moments as people flexed their intellectual muscles to reason that the usage of the word was allowable.

I’ve called help desks where I have formed the impression that the staff have either been watching late night TV or asleep. This reveals itself in the way that the call is answered. An alert mind and a sleepy mind sound wildly different.

It is in the nature of the human animal to be at low ebb during the night. I worked night shifts for years and never really got used to it. I knew that I could not trust myself to work at my best between the hours of 1:00 am and 4:30 am, and I did all that I could to avoid taking on anything requiring deep concentration during these hours. From 9:00 pm I would try to get anything complex out of the way so that I could relax and just pick up calls, which normally came in fairly regularly. Those shifts were tough, especially if I was the only person in the office. During those shifts, with nobody to talk to or play games with, it was very hard to stay awake and alert.

I tried to keep my mind active by writing poetry or short stories, and as a consequence I have many notebooks crammed with what is regarded by experts as poetry that can only be described as excruciating. I found that reading made me sleepy and late night TV was just plain boring. The one thing that really helped when I was flagging was running around the office and getting slightly breathless every hour.

If you have ever worked the graveyard shift, whether in operations or the help desk, did you find it hard to concentrate in the wee hours of the morning? What coping mechanisms did you use?

17 comments
janfebmar
janfebmar

I've always found playing games kept my mind awake and focused when working night shifts. Nothing keeps me up more than playing a game of civilization 4. Just one more turn..

bfpower
bfpower

I am a deskside tech, and I haven't done night shift, but right now due to a hiring freeze (and due to me setting up stable images and doing good maintenance) my work has dwindled to almost a standstill (yet I still am required to be onsite for the few incidents that do occur). I definitely have to fight to keep my mind alert at work. First thing (which you alluded to) is physically keeping the body alert. Walking, running, even having a treadmill or bike in the office (depending on your corporate culture) could be a help. Proper ergonomics (especially neck and back) are a must. Mental stimulation is key as well. I love designing things, so designing a woodworking project or a guitar or a computer program will keep me rolling at all but the most sleepy of times. If you like to hack (in the old-school non-destructive sense), and you have the authority to set up an old 'retired' asset, set up a dev box and write code. Save all of it, too. That kind of analytical thinking will not only keep you awake, but will also sharpen your analytical skills and broaden your knowledge. Eating right is a big factor. While a Coke can provide a short buzz, it also makes you crash afterwards. Eat plenty of fruits/veggies, and take a multivitamin. Stay away from fast food, etc... all the things we already knew but don't practice. =D

Manasarajeshwari
Manasarajeshwari

I completely agree with this. Many times even I am alone in the night shift and get bored.

ross.ocallaghan
ross.ocallaghan

Have to agree 100%. Install World of Warcraft, setup your first character and you'll wonder where the hours went...

ITCompGuy
ITCompGuy

You sound similar to me. You seem to enjoy your job. That is the first thing that will help someone stay alert. Enjoying what you do. Next, staying physically fit, and finally continued skills enhancement. I started off doing computer operations, desktop support, and helpdesk. Keep up the good work and good attitude and you will be able to have a good and productive IT career.

les.jones
les.jones

All good information but in my time I found that taking a bed chair to my BT shift was the best way to go. I got all routine work out of the way by 0100 and slept until 0530. But during that time I had all alarms, incoming call alerts turned up so that the call will wake me up. Have an open can of Coke ready to go. Phones goes, wake up, quick slurp and be profesional. Us blokes are designed to sleep like this and is in our genes. However another company and another shift really got to me as my new Team Lead made up work just to stay a wake. I found that I had trouble staying awake on the drive home. So I changed jobs. Afterwards I found that the other shifts, took turns sleeping. I just happened to be on the wrong shift! If you can't catch up with your sleep during the day, then you are in the wrong job. Some people, like me, are not cut out to do shift work.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You seem to have chosen your career by default. All down time in support should be used to develop yourself to get out what is the crappiest job in the known universe. Tech, management, sheesh practice your cordon-bleu skills, get off your arse man. What are you waiting for, a winning lottery ticket?

jck
jck

Just feel lucky you have a job. There are people who'd love to have your job.

GSG
GSG

When I worked nights, it wasn't in IT, but in a medical records dept in the old paper days. I structured my night so that I did most of my work that required sitting down in the early evenings and then did all the filing at the time when I tended to be most sleepy. That helped me when I made the move to IT. I'd get up and walk around, and when I wasn't actively remoting someone, but talking them through an issue, I'd pace or just stand. Otherwise, a nice cold room, and something to keep the brain engaged helps. Rubberband fights with your co-workers is also a nice pick me up. Avoid sugar, high fat/high carb foods. Eat lightly and often, specifically fruits and veggies, and lighter things. A full stomach makes you sleepy.

phil.bradley
phil.bradley

As a trainee in the mid-80's I worked as a trainee mainframe operator for (what was then) Midlands electricity in the UK. Night shift was usually the night shift we involved scheduling batch jobs to run and handling bill print queues, trainee/juniors found themselves with the short straw with reloading printers, changing print ribbons/rollers. Usually we got all the schedules and batches up and loaded by 1am the majority of the ops team would retire to the common room for a few hours sleep leaving one operator on the main print console looking after the printers and one of the ops console controlling the batch processes. With little to do other than read (which I always find a sure fire way after a while to nod off -even more so when reading It related material) listen to Walkman and radio, it was the mid-80's. I tended to go for a walk every 45 mins just to keep active. Then of course the two 'awake' operators had to raise the remainder of their team from their slumbers a half hour or so before shift end before rolling off shift for a canteen breakfast ... happy days! Phil

bclomptwihm
bclomptwihm

Study Real Estate between calls. Get your License. Go to the library and check out every RE book you can find; most library systems have hundreds of them. Work RE during the day, as a Realtor and an investor. After 2-3 years you will find your RE pay exceeding your Help Desk pay. At that point, leave....

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Well I [i]was[/i] but seeing as you put it that way, perhaps I just might not win. Hmmm, back to the drawing board. Hey, do you know what the chances of winning big on pull tabs is? They have pull tabs in the bar at the track, maybe that'd do it.

ITCompGuy
ITCompGuy

I worked for six years in computer operations at night...alone. I worked for a company that had a global pressence on several continents, so I covered as the only helpdesk support person for India, Europe, South America, Australia, and China. Some nights were easy because they were busy with calls. Some nights were more difficult to stay alert. As a few posters have mentioned, doing some physical exercise helps. I was lucky that the company I worked had a full gym w/pool in another building approximately a block and a half from my work location. In the middle of the night I would take the time allotted for my lunch and jog over to the gym, work out, and jog back. This not only helped to keep me in shape, but also helped to keep me constantly ready and alert. Also, there were security guards that made rounds, and I tried to make friends with all of them. Some would seek me out to conversate during slow periods. One security guard would pick two nights a week to come sit with me and play dominoes. Finally, I would play a game that I make up called "Service and Support". I knew that most customers would expect to get a person who was marginally equipped for the job or someone half asleep. So I would make it my goal to answer every call as quick as I possibly could. If I were sitting at my desk, I would answer on the first ring. If I was busy doing something away from the phone, I would answer as quickly as possible. Then I would make sure I answered with as much enthusiasm and perkyness as I could muster. Then I tried to make sure I went over-and-beyond with servicing even the most minute problem. After a while, my daytime counterparts and supervisors started getting word and recognition from various locations about the great support guy working at night, some that prior to my start did not know anyone worked at night. It was a game that worked to keep me mentally sharp and also added value to my company.

dkmcadow
dkmcadow

When I would get sleepy, I found that getting the heart rate up really helped wake me up and make me more alert. I didn't have a lot of space, so I mostly did jumping jacks and deep knee-bends. Crunchy snacks helped too, especially nuts that I had to shell first. I learned to avoid that fatty/greasy/sugary foods since they'd only drag me down later. I'd hold-off drinking coffee until the latter part of my shift, since the boost from caffeine seemed to plateau if I drank too much of it. Mentally, I found that logic puzzles kept my head clear, so I was always on the hunt for books or cheap magazines with logic puzzles. This was years before sudoku came out, but sudoku seems to have the same effect on me. The rest of the time I read lots of short stories and would listen to late-night talk radio.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

You know how I am about changing careers on a whim, I'd have been out the door as soon as I got bored. Your comments are entertaining though.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The problem with having no get up and go, is all the interesting people already got up and went. There's clue in there for anyone who's brain hasn't atrophied... Oh my job is boring, get another one then, ffs. Jeez, even my dog has more sense than that and he eats pull tabs...

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