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?


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?