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All nighters: While most of us sleep, a small cadre works through the witching hours to keep the region humming

After the sun goes down and most Victorians are fast asleep in their beds, a small but select group of people is just starting work.

After the sun goes down and most Victorians are fast asleep in their beds, a small but select group of people is just starting work.

Doctors, janitors, scientists, waitresses, emergency workers, cab drivers, dock workers, bakers, hotel staff -- you name it -- if something runs 24-hours in this city, someone's working while you catch your 40 winks.

But while night work is essential to a modern economy, it has some definite challenges. "They don't call it the graveyard shift for nothing," quips Victoria marriage and family counsellor Janice Graham.

Indeed, studies show that, over long periods of time, working nights and sleeping days can actually shorten our lives. That's because our bodies work on circadian rhythms, roughly 24-hour cycles that regulate temperature and hormone levels, partly in response to light. If we work when our bodies are geared for sleep, or eat when our hormones aren't primed for food, we put stress on our bodies, says Judy Village, who teaches in the School of Environmental Health at the University of B.C.

"Pilots who are constantly distressed in their circadian rhythms have shorter lifespans," she says.

These problems can follow late-night workers home. People who work nights are 20 per cent more likely to be unhappy with their work-life balance, according to a Statistics Canada survey. They also get to spend less time with their partners and don't sleep as much as daytime workers. The effect on a relationship can be harsh, says Graham.

So, too, is the impact on a night worker's social life. Most services and events in the region are geared to those who work a typical day shift. Try stopping off for groceries on your way home from work when your shift ends at 5 a.m. Forgot to pack a lunch for work, or need a coffee break? Your options at 1 a.m. are limited -- just a few all-night Tim Hortons, a pair of 24-hour diners, Alzu's and Denny's, and covenience stores. Want to watch the Salmon-Kings or Seals? Sorry, there are precious few daytime games.

So why do people endure the hardships of working at night? Mostly because someone has to do it -- just try imagining a world in which police officers and firefighters quit work at 5 p.m.

"I don't think our society could function without people who worked at night," says Bruce Carter, chief executive officer of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. "The nature of our lifestyles certainly requires 24-hour support."

Night workers are a small group. Across Canada, only eight per cent of full-time workers regularly work the night shift, according to a 2008 study by Statistics Canada. Although specific numbers for Victoria aren't available, Carter says night work is a small component of our economy because of our city's relatively small population -- although he says our dependence on tourism, the navy and the ferries likely keeps nights busier than most cities our size.

Those who work through the witching hours have their own reasons for doing so. It can be necessary to keep a precarious job or a strategy to avoid paying for child care.

And for some night owls, it's just what they like.

Kabuki Kab driver Lonnie Kirkpatrick says her late schedule is about making good money from well-lubricated barflies. For astronomer Dave Balam, nighttime is simply the best time to view the stars. For young radio DJ Shayne Kaye, the night shift offers a chance to gain valuable experience at a time when no one else wants to work.

The good news is that the hurdles associated with night work can be overcome. Graham counsels couples to think about what really matters -- is saving on child care really worth your marriage?

Night workers can manage their circadian rhythms, too. If rotating shift work is a must, then shifts should move from earlier to later, from day shifts to night shifts, before a worker gets time off and can reset.

And there are some benefits: When night shift workers aren't sleeping during the day, they can catch the afternoon sun at the beach, or book mid-week appointments for things such as haircuts or massages, when those services are less busy.

Sarah Young, a waitress at Alzu's restaurant on Bay Street, says she's adapted to the life.

"I'm trained to be a night person. I sleep all day and I'm up all night," she says. "You train your body. No matter which job you work, your body's clock goes along."

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> Inside this week's Monitor, we take a look at Victorians who labour through the night to keep Victoria's economy running 24/7. See pages D6 and D7.