It’s hard to resist scrolling through work emails on days off. In fact, if statistics are accurate, then most of us are guilty of taking work home, to dinner and even to the beach. In theory, clock-in, clock-out jobs could (and probably should) end when we leave the office, but that’s never been the case for workers forced to endure the professional purgatory known as on-call duty.
The mere possibility of tending to patients, clients and customers does more than restrict people from going off the grid. On-call employees, according to a new study, struggle with sleep in a similar manner to shift-workers.
Doctors have become the archetype of the on-call world, what with romantic comedies and Shonda Rhimes-produced dramas depicting them as constantly one page away from a patient in need.Research concerning the impact of on-call work has similarly focused on the medical field, and the picture isn’t pretty: Doctors shackled to their phones after the workday ends face both sleep deprivation and unhappy families.
But the physician who’s forced to drop everything for a patient hardly represents on-call workers at large. According to a recent study from the Netherlands, remote on-call work is increasingly common in such jobs as tech support and customer service, which “require 24/7 coverage but don’t require the amount of evening, night and weekend work for full-shift coverage.”
For that study, 169 Dutch on-call technicians answered questionnaires about their physical and mental health. Researchers hypothesized that on-call workers, like shift workers, would deal with heightened sleeping problems and, as a result, require more sleep recovery to maintain well-being.
Their hunch was spot-on. The survey results revealed a link between on-call work, severe fatigue and poor mental and physical health.
“Not only performing extra work in addition to a regular daytime job,” the study authors wrote, “but also the inherent unpredictability of ‘being called or not’ might have contributed to higher need for recovery in our study population.”
Being on-call, the study suggests, is an inbetween state-of-labor that’s qualitatively different from true time-off. It makes sense that our sleep suffers when we’re not manacled to the eight-hour workday. While nine-to-five jobs certainly have drawbacks, they also let us draw bright lines between work and play, which keep us healthy, well-rested and sane.
But, we need to figure out a way to handle the negative consequences of this quasi-working state because, let’s face it — we’re all heading in that direction. As we spend Saturdays checking Slack and firing off missives about next week’s meeting, those bright lines will only get blurrier.