Who would work at night? Research shows that night work is unhealthy for your body and well-being. There is a greater likelihood that your marriage will end up on the rocks and of developing cardiovascular and blood pressure problems. So how is it that some of the 1.3 million night workers in the Netherlands, 14 percent of the working population, choose night work out of conviction? Fabian Dekker, a labour sociologist at Erasmus University, was fascinated by this question. He wrote a book about it.

Forgotten professions

This is the second part of his series of books on ‘forgotten professions’. After diving into the lives of circus artists for part 1, in 2022 Dekker decided to focus on people who work at night. Whereas sociology looks at the statistics that show the negative consequences for health and well-being, Dekker wanted to investigate something else for his book.

“In statistics, you almost never hear how night workers have synchronised their lives with the night-time hours. It’s almost exclusively about the risks.” The term ‘forgotten professions’ in the title can be taken almost literally. Dekker wants to do something about this. His book is about the employees who experience night work as meaningful, because it is precisely these employees who are missed in statistical research. “It’s a way of making their voice heard.”

Street sociologist

So where does this fascination with night workers come from? Dekker comes from a family of doers. Both his grandfather and father worked in the port of Rotterdam. “They both had their feet firmly planted in the Dutch clay.” In the same vein, Dekker describes himself as a scientist. He is a field worker in the city. “I’m a street sociologist and conduct a lot of research on the street, in the Chicago School tradition.” This movement studies behaviour not at an individual level but in a broad social context. “I really try to empathise with the other person, because there is a danger that you will listen too much from your own interpretation framework and then think you know how it is.”

For this book, Dekker interviewed 25 night workers in eight different occupational fields: healthcare, port, train, police, cleaning, catering, freight transport and radio. All 25 provide an essential service in our 24-hour economy and explain why they prefer to work at night. “People choose night work based on their lifestyle. There is a group for whom it’s a good fit. They look for a way to integrate night work into their lives.”

Fabian Dekker 0223-005_Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

Ode to professionals

Dekker himself is motivated by uncovering other people’s motives. What motivates a night worker? This is what he aims to find out. He uses his sociological imagination for this: personal experiences can be better understood by placing the person in a broader social context. “It’s an ode to professionals”, is how he characterises his book. “Professionals who feel that they find time at night to focus on their work, and also experience a high degree of autonomy. It’s actually about how people get meaning out of their work.”

The importance that professionals give to their work is strongly linked to autonomy. From the conversations, Dekker learned that many night workers regard this meaning and autonomy as the reason for carrying out their profession at night. During the night, they find that they are better able to focus on the tasks that form the core of their profession. “At night, I can be a cop again”, Dekker quotes a police officer he interviewed for his book. “At night, he doesn’t have to write out fines, but can catch crooks again. That’s why he became a cop in the first place.”

No bureaucracy and control

During the night, the interviewed workers regain their professional pride. They like to work at these times because that’s when ‘the skill comes back into the picture.’” The nurse who has time at night to sit at the patient’s bedside to really talk. It seems as if the night creates time and scope for people to choose the essential tasks of the profession. And this autonomy ensures that they experience their work as meaningful.

As a sociologist, Dekker looks for ways in which people use their competencies and skills in a meaningful way. “And this does not include bureaucracy and control, but a say in the work. People rediscover autonomy at night.”

This autonomy is at odds with the modern management philosophy, which focuses on increasing production. “We have partly internalised the expectation that the performance society imposes on us. You end up taking advantage of yourself. After all, you should be an ideal employee.” In turn, this leads to fatigue and even burnout symptoms. “We are creating a tired society”, says Dekker.

Not without good reason, the Scientific Council for Government Policy published ‘Het betere werk (A Better Way to Work)’ in 2020. “This is a call to pay attention to the quality of the work. The globalisation and flexibilisation of the labour market are increasing the workload. Quality is being put under pressure as a result.”

Keeping in touch

Which of the night workers would Dekker like to be himself? “I’ve found my place here. As a sociologist.” He draws his enthusiasm and meaning from the search for the core question of his book: ‘How do people give meaning to their working existence?’ In order to find an answer, Dekker emphasises the importance of wonder and imagination in the execution of his research. The question as to why people behave in a certain way constantly arises. “This stems from the meanings that people assign to their lives and their work.”

Honestly, there isn’t a single profession that attracts him? “Well, if I had to choose one of the eight professions from my book, then it would be a community police officer. That’s all about keeping in touch with people. Establishing a connection by talking to each other. Not losing sight of each other. That’s crucial.”

Forgotten professions – Living and working as a night worker is part 2 in the series Fabian Dekker is writing about forgotten professions. Part 1 was about circus performers. Soon he will start part 3, on factory workers.