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Night shifts grow in popularity, scope

(ran Tampa edition)

Amy Sonnek has brought a new meaning to "banker's hours."

Sonnek, manager at an overnight check-processing center for Wells Fargo & Co., goes to work at midnight.

Bob Adams, a bakery manager, goes to work about 5 a.m. after about two decades of 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. starts. But even his old shift isn't so lonely these days, because the grocery store where he works is open 24/7.

They are part of this country's nocturnal world of work, the fastest-growing group of working Americans.

One in five U.S. workers now works the late-late shift, going to work between midnight and 6:30 a.m., according to newly released numbers from the 2000 census.

Once the haunt of nurses, police officers and factory workers, the so-called "graveyard shift" has grown to include computer support staffs, research scientists and brokers working the Tokyo trading desk from halfway around the world.

"White-collar jobs are growing just as fast or faster than blue-collar jobs" in nighttime employment, said Brian O'Neill, marketing coordinator for Circadian Technologies, an "extended-hours" consultancy in Lexington, Mass.

Experts credit the worldwide marketplace and growing customer demand for 24-hour computer help, grocery shopping and catalog orders. Some in this migrating work force like their new schedules. To Sonnek, it means she can be at home with her family days and evenings. Others find it impossible.

But the night-crew numbers are expected to keep growing, and so are associated concerns about night employment, including higher rates of workplace accidents, health problems and divorce among working parents.

"It's a growing phenomenon and people aren't talking about it, particularly in relation to families," said Harriet Presser, author of Working in a 24/7 Economy.

As of 2000, 19.7 percent of U.S. workers left their homes for work between midnight and 6:30 a.m., the census data show. That's 2.1 percentage points above the 1990 figure.

A series of health studies have linked overnight work to fatigue, weight gain, digestive disorders, heart problems, workplace accidents and workplace injuries _ most recently back and shoulder pain with computer use.

That's bad news for employers, too, because it increases absenteeism, turnover and insurance costs, and it decreases productivity. Circadian Technologies is among the consultancies that advise companies how to mitigate those effects.

It's not possible for people to completely flip their days and nights, O'Neill said. Body temperature drops at night, the digestive system slows and muscle strength dips.

"It doesn't matter if you've been working nights for 10 years," he said. "Our biorhythms are basically hard-wired. We're meant to sleep at night and be productive in the day."

But simple rules and routines make a big difference. Those include exercise, a careful eating schedule and "sleep hygiene," O'Neill said. His company recommends light-blocking curtains, sleep masks and a fan or other kind of white noise. Cooler bedroom temperatures help, as does unplugging the phone.

Several consultants also stress a regular bedtime _ seven days a week. One of the most fatiguing mistakes is switching to daylight hours on days off, they said.