The Shift Work Environment in Meteorology Needs to Change!

18   Nov ,  2011 | 30
comments

The shift work environment in meteorology needs to change…Yea I said it!  We all know that most of the operational meteorology jobs out there involve some type of shift work.  Although I’ve talked about few Monday-Friday operational meteorology jobs (See my previous post), most operational meteorologists are forced to work overnights, holidays, weekends.

And it makes sense…the weather does not sleep!  And the mentality is: Why should you or your company?  A great example is the role of an aviation meteorologist…(see my previous post).   Pilots are flying at all times, in both hemispheres, and they need to be kept abreast of weather information.  It makes sense.

But shift work was very difficult for me.   It took a toll on my health, my social life, and personal life.  When I worked as an aviation meteorologist, I used to work a swing and overnight shift.  The swing shifts were 11am-11pm, 2pm-2am…and the overnight shift was from 6pm-6am.   And I used to work 4 days on 4 days off, or when it was busy 5 days on…and 3 days off.    The hardest part for me was being away on major holidays and weekends/nights from my family.   The second hardest part was sitting in traffic and commuting in to work (which took me about 45 min to an hour each way).   It was also tough to adjust on my days off during overnight shift.   I tried to switch back into “day mode” to seem “normal”…but then I had to go back to a night owl so soon it messed with my internal clock.   Shift work was tough for my body and mind!

I know there are many meteorologists out there that currently feel the same way I did.  Tired, groggy, and just wish there was another solution.    Well I want to introduce you to a new model that is being successfully run at a top aviation weather company on the west coast (I won’t name names…but I am a huge fan!).

The company allows their meteorologists to work from home.  Yes…home.   Yes you can sit in your pajamas all day or night and work from the goodness of your laptop.   How awesome is that!

And you know what is amazing…the turnover of the meteorology department at the aviation company has dropped considerably.  The employees are much happier…and the product they put out is just as great…if not better. And they’re still doing shift work!  Plus the employer is being “green” too.  The employees are driving less and are spending much less on gas.  The employees are able to spend more time with their families (because they are driving less and they’re at home all day)…and the employer saves money on office space and monitors/computer equipment at the office…all in all it’s a win-win set up.

Now some folks may bring up a few valid issues with this approach:  #1: What about security?   #2: What about cohesion within the group?

This aviation company has strict protocols while the employees work from home…and each of them are on a secured laptop.  And cohesion…well social networking and technology is keeping everyone “cohesive” these days…and there are applications like Skype, Basecamp, or internal proprietary programs where employees can stay connected at all times from any time zone and any place in the world.

Plus the folks at the aviation company meet once or twice a week in the office to catch up on meetings, work on meteorology graphics, and other administrative issues.  Now I do understand that not ALL operational meteorologists can realistically work from home…(ie NWS) would be difficult due to the very strict clearances they have… but for private consulting meteorologists, private aviation meteorologists, wind meteorologists, solar energy meteorologists…I think they can do better.

I hope employers in meteorology (or any other job function for that matter) always remember that people are your competitive advantage.  Happy employees are productive employees are motivated employees.   I couldn’t agree more and fully support the work-from-home business model for private shift work operational meteorologists.

So, it begs me to ask the following questions…do we really need private operational meteorologists working shift work in an office environment?  Can most operational shift work employers follow the work-from-home business model?  What do you think?  (Photo credit: quierosersaludable.com)

Posted by AJ on November 18, 2011

  • Mimi

    I think the work from home model is a great idea. Ive read reports where working graveyard shifts is highly dangerous to your health. I would love to see more of a shift like this with other companies as well!

  • Jason541

    I couldn’t agree more. Nice post!

  • Metmike007

    Night shift is part of being an operational meteorologist. We all signed up for it. But I’m glad you brought this up…it would be nice for meteorology companies to start using technology so more of us can work from home.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks! Yea you’re right Met Mike…operational meteorologists did sign up for this. My point is really about giving more flexibility (and a work/life balance) to the employees by utilizing technology…youll be surprised how much harder people will work…they’ll even go the extra mile for the company if you just give them even 1 or 2 days to work from home.

  • Steve

    I think it’s great what you said, but how would you convince meteorology companies to do this. Also, it’s tough to do weather graphics from a laptop at home? 3 or 4 monitors are required sometimes. What do you think AJ?

  • Mike L

    Your shift work seemed pretty easy. I’m workin 5 night shifts and then 2 days off, and then back to day shift for the next week and then back to night shift the following week. I need to show my company this post…it would be so great to work from home.

  • Anonymous

    @Steve: I definitely understand that it’s not realistic to have 3 huge monitors at home. But the tasks that I am speaking about are like “flight briefs”, “writing weather forecasts”, answering/making customer phone calls, weather analysis (now there are so many models available on the internet) …even some meetings. Do we all need to be in each other’s faces all the time? Meetings can be held through various online programs and the technology is good.

    My point is figure out what things at your job NEEDS to be done at work…and what CAN be done at home…and bring it up to your management. Having the guts to stand up and talk about it is how change happens. Now, I’m sounding like a politician…lol. Hope that makes sense!

  • Anonymous

    @Mike L….man you have a tough schedule. I hope you can work from home a day or two a week to begin. I’m sure it would help a lot with the rotating shifts.

  • Miley

    Nice AJ. Do you think if we worked from home more that it would be harder to get a promotion? Cuz our management wouldn’t be able to see our work as much? How would he able to critique who gets a promotion and who doesn’t? What do you think AJ? Thanks so much!

    • Genaro2

      I agree with AJ well. I’m still with the company that AJ mentions above, and yes, the manager will notice you’re work as long as you continue to work hard, stay in touch via email/chat and the occasional in person meeting, and do the things above and beyond your normal job description that will get you noticed by the manager. Don’t be shy to email or call your manager with something you did that you feel was critical or that makes the company look good, they really do appreciate this kind of effort and feed back.

  • Anonymous

    @Miley: This is a fantastic point you bring up. How do you show your skills off when you’re at home to a manager that can’t see you in person? So here’s a few juicy secrets…managers will look at what makes you stand apart from the group. Do you think outside the box? Do you help solve problems? Do you take extra shifts when needed? Are you a team player? Do the other team members respect you? When you go above and beyond…and you have a great attitude about it…it really helps.

    Managers will also look for genuine leadership skills. A lot of times this can be determined by how you communicate both through phone and email….how you interact with your fellow team members. A LOT can be judged while you’re at home…and YES…it is great to be in the office to show your face..and it’s also great to go on team outings to build relationships. So the answer to your question is “No”… it would not be harder…you just have to be more creative :)

  • Matthew

    Great article! I will be graduating next Spring & aviation forecasting is what I would like to do. I hope this catches on because working from home for me would be a great benefit, having a family (with 3 kids).

  • Mountain Weather

    Thanks for the great article, AJ. I have been working as a meteorologist for 16 years, 12 of those in some shift environment and 5 of them as my own boss in a shift environment from home. I am still working shift hours from home and am sitting in Pajamas as we speak. While the idea may seem enticing at first, after my experience over the past 5 years, I am trying hard to get out of the house back into an office environment and try connect personally as much as possible with my clients (not via skype etc.).

    I believe that
    a) working from home you still do shift work and will be as groggy as always
    b) Your whole family will now notice and sometimes suffer under the mood/stress you are in while working at home
    c) your own home will become more of a work environment for you, making it more difficult to shut off during non-working hours
    d) the biggest problem is the perception that we all can meet via phone/skyp or any other virutal meeting and have the same connection to colleagues/clients. I believe that I am losing out hugely because I have no spontaneous idea exchange with colleagues and clients and as a result innovation in my company has slowed to about half of what it used to be since I work from home.
    e) working alone and from home takes discipline … a lot of discipline … that I sometimes do not have …when a forecast went bust and I am already in a crappy mood, it is 10 times harder (when I am alone) to correct my fx, call the client about the bust and shake off the experience. Having colleagues around me to share and vent my frustration with makes such an experience much easier to digest and move on.

    My best experiences in dealing with this topic come from living as close as possible to work (best is walking or biking distance), going to bed as regular and early as possible and interacting as close and as much with clients/colleagues as I can, but most importantly: separate work and home as much as you can.

    I have the feeling, though, that none of my experience matters, since working from home has always been cheaper and the negatives are not immediately tangible for the employer. So eventually, I think you are right in that most of us will work from a home (or remote) environment in pajamas (heck, make that Speedos, because I would move to the Bahamas in that case).

    Cheers,
    Uwe

  • David

    Great post! I worked for the NWS early on in my meteorological career. I loved the work. However, I hated the concept that my work shift changed approximately every 7 days. In other words, one week was day shift, the second week was afternoon/evening shift and the following week was night shift. I liked the pay and the challenges, but why my sleep schedule was all messed up with the frequent change of work shift. I was told that shift work is necessary so that the meteorologist on duty knows how to handle the differences in weather in a given 24-hr period. That excuse to maintain changing shift work schedules was absolute hog wash! I left the NWS b/c the NWS was uninterested in listening to comments against shift work. Since shift work has to occur keep a meteorologist on a specific shift for a six month or annual period and then alter it throughout the office. It comes down to $ in the end and I understand that but the average life span of a shift worker is approximately 65 years old.

  • Anonymous

    @David: wow…you couldn’t have said it any better! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and comments! I definitely agree with you that the excuse they gave you made absolutely no sense. And I honestly don’t know why they want to put your body and mind through that….switching back every week is unnecessary.

    When I did shift work, at least it was 6 weeks on, and then switch. But employers…including the government in meteorology, should begin having a discussion about shift work and it’s health implications.

    There have been a lot of studies done about how overnight shift can actually shorten your lifespan. And my goal is to have a discussion started in meteorology about letting employees work from home (even occasionally) and reduce the burden on one’s health. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Uwe, thanks for offering a great perspective on working from home. I’m glad you brought these points up and it’s something I definitely want to address. Working from home does have it’s positives and negatives. And I agree it’s extremely important to separate work from home…we always hear the saying “never mix business with pleasure”…similar. But there are ways to help mitigate the negative effects: Here are my thoughts:

    1) I think it would be ideal if you could live next to your employer in a shift work environment.. However, there can be negative implications on this too.

    a) Since you live close, you may always be called to “fill in” or “work the extra weekend or holiday”…you may be the one relied on to fill any vacation gaps which could get annoying.

    b) Many times employees cannot live next to their employer because the real estate is too expensive…or the area might not be ideal for their families.

    2) Work hours vs Non work hours: You’re right…it does take discipline to work from home.

    a) You do have to separate work from your personal life. First step: If you can swing it, try having a “home office”…not working out of your dining table or bedroom.

    b) Next step: It’s imperative that you take some breaks (like you normally do at work). That means go take a walk…or get outside for a bit.

    c) And on your lunch or dinner break….try getting some food with your co-worker (or two) sometimes if you can get together. Just make sure you’ve got the work covered for the shift and you’re back in time.

    3) Venting of Frustration: Here’s what I have noticed when I was on shift…when there was a problem with an assignment. or botched forecast, or company/manager issues…(any issue that you need to vent)…your employees were right there and you could vent. And sure it was great to get off your chest. However, they would vent about their issues too…and then others would join in. And everyday became a venting session…and the work environment turned from a motivating one to a depressing one. I was so sick of hearing everyone’s problems…I just wanted to get out there and try to fix them. So yes it’s great to be able to vent…but it’s also quite distracting and not depressing if you have to hear it everyday.

    4) Visiting your clients: Huge…I’d say make 1-2 trips were week to visit your clients. Get outside as much as possible…it will help make you feel valued and appreciated too. And at the same time, it’s great customer service on your part. Take them out to lunch, chat shop, and work on getting feedback to improve your product at the same time. I think this would make working from home easier too.

    5) Technology and Innovation: Many companies are using Skype, Telepresence, and other tools to connect virtually with their clients. Heck, even the media is doing this for interviews and such so they can save cost. I think in order to have innovation, there needs to be a leader in the group who is constantly pushing his group for ideas, thoughts, and feedback.

    Innovation happens all the time from home. Look at all the internet start ups out there that have been successful and started from a garage in a house. Try doing this: Once a week have a meeting that addresses “new ideas and innovation”. Whether it’s on Skype or a conference call…just make it a point to discuss how your product can be better and what issues there are. And if people are uncomfortable, then another idea is to have an anonymous idea box…where any employee can put their ideas on how to make the work environment and/or product better.

    I hope this helps…would love to hear your thoughts Uwe…and again sincere thanks for bringing your perspective to my blog.

    AJ

  • Sean

    This letter is right on! I worked as an Aviation Meteorologist for 2 1/2 years and when I did shiftwork, I averaged 4 hours of sleep/night! I made up for sleep when I adjusted to a later shift and during my days off but when I had 3 days to adjust from the all night shift to the early morning shift and often on the night before the early shift, I was up all night because I couldnt adjust that quickly.

    The only difference I experienced between me and the article is that my coworkers actually preferred the shiftwork and shot down a really good alternative solution therefore the shiftwork remained in place. Until I left, I didnt realize the toll it took on my health in all respects.

  • Jonathan

    As a meteorologist at a small private consulting firm, I am all too familiar with the discomfort of shift work. It can become quite a contentious issue in our office at times too!

    I have gotten used to it over the years, and am now a “master of my internal clock”, but I do wish some of the alternatives you mentioned would work here. Our office is a very collaborative environment, so I feel even with video conferencing technology and similar solutions we would be missing out on a great deal of in-office brainstorming and forecast discussion. There have been great leaps and bounds in these technologies over the last several years, but they still unfortunately don’t do enough to simulate the “office experience” in my opinion. Here’s to hoping for the future though!

  • WolfpackWx

    Good post. There was a movement in our office to go to preferred shifts a few years ago. People would list the shift preference from 1 to 3 (Day, Swing, Midnight) and then shifts would be assigned accordingly. You would still have to work a few undesirable shifts but many less than a standard rotating schedule. It could work some offices. (I know of at least 5 co-workers in our office who HATE working day shifts, myself included. Some people are just wired differently and are not morning people.) Also the advantage of working at night is less politics and overall less B.S. to deal with. You can focus on the weather and doing your job. Agree on the rotating shift. Before my present job I worked at a company where a was on constant graveyard shifts but the same hours every night for the most part. Even though it was always at night, it was much easier to manage as your body could adjust to it a lot easier. (Should add I’m a night owl by nature).

  • Qvectorman

    Shift work has been documented to be detrimental to your health. And it is just horrible any way you spin it. I have never understood why meteorological companies/agencies continue to do rotating shifts. Why don’t they just issue a permanent shift to employees? The automotive companies have done this for an eternity and it’s a lot easier. At least then your body becomes accustom to a set sleep schedule for months/years.

  • Karen

    AJ, I enjoyed your article. Working from home is exactly what I am looking for. As a tv meteorologist, I watched my chief do his live hits from home and some of the other mets in my department doing their radio reports from home and I must say they are very chippy (not grouchy). I have worked mostly the am side (3:30am – 12:30pm) and it definitely drains me. I hope this concept take off very soon.

  • Robert

    Shift work is part of the life of a meteorologist. Fortunately, I was able to convince my boss a long time ago that I wanted one shift, not those horrifying rotating shifts. I have been working all midnight shift for over 20 years now. This has freed up some of colleagues to work all day and/or evening shifts. It is still difficult working the late shift at times, but I have been able to adapt.

  • Bernie

    You could work from home but then you might still be doing the shift work. Really depends on the nature of the job. A consultant could work anytime they want to. Someone tied to an operational weather requirement may need the support at any time in a 24 hour period. Until it can be decided that human intervention is not required in generating weather products and these companies can get their weather automatically (models) — but then that would be talking yourself out of a job.

  • Chris

    Great article AJ! I don’t see why more people couldn’t work from home and that is something I am looking for right now. I was recently layed off from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC due to federal budget cuts. It was very unfortunate and now I am having a hard time finding a new job. I am not really in a position to move as my wife and I have just settled in our new home which we purchased last summer. She is a school teacher and I would hate to move and her lose her position and tenure with this economy the way it is. My goal is to find a position in weather forecasting or consulting with a company where I can work from home. I have been all over the internet searching for such positions. I found a couple of companies that do have work-from-home employees but they are not in a position to hire right now. If you or anyone else has any ideas or information on any companies that may be hiring in a weather related field, please let me know! Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Chris! Appreciate your comment and sorry to hear about your layoff. Yea that’s one of the issues with meteorology…is that if you leave your employer…you most likely have to move the entire family and move some place else. Can the NCDC put you in touch with other government agencies? Or are there any recruitment services within the agency that can help?

    The other option is to pivot out of meteorology for a bit until you can start building a relationship with employers around you. It’s a tough position to be in Chris…hang in there bud!

  • http://www.awt.aero Dave Gorham

    Life’s tough, ey AJ?

    I’ve worked many, many years as a shift-working meteorologist (aviation met, at that) and never complained (though some of my co-workers certainly did). Shift work is definitely tough on the body. In your case, I think the 12-hour shift is what sucked – an 8- or 9-hour overnight shift is much less dramatic. For me, the DD-SS-MM-OOO rotation allowed my body to fall into its natural rhythm except for two days of the 10-day rotation – I enjoyed it.

    Shift work is definitely part of meteorology – even on TV (up really early, or at the studio late). Most who want to get into the field of meteorology don’t realize how tough it is. When I have the opportunity to speak to high schoolers, Scouts, etc., I’m always sure to mention that it takes more than being a top student to have a career as a meteorologist.

    As for working at home, more power to anybody who can do it – I would love to. But to do any kind of operational meteorology on a laptop sounds like torture. Each of our ops workstations include 4 or 5 large monitors – impractical considering most home offices’ available desktop real estate, not to mention the cost to the employer. Also, there’s much to be said for talking to a co-worker about a particular subject. As any meteorologist knows, many aspects of the forecast are up to interpretation and not everybody is an expert in every aspect of the job. Skype and IM can only go so far. Having said that, I was able to successfully pull off at-home radio spots on weekends, holidays or the overnight hours when severe weather threatened. If all I did was radio, I would never leave the house!

    Lastly, the turnover rate in the met dept at the company where I was an aviation met was the lowest in the company. Many of the guys who have been with the company 15 or 20 years (or more) are the mets. I think most meteorologists anywhere realize that a good met job is hard to come by and if shift work is the worst part of it, well maybe that’s not so bad.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Dave for your experience and perspective. Shift work is definitely a part of meteorology….no doubt about that! I agree that many of the weather graphics are done on 3-5 large monitors. So what I mentioned in my post was the folks at this aviation company do come into work and do the graphics at work. But the “flight briefs” they do from home. All you really need is a laptop for that. My point was to identify what can be done from home…and what you can do at work…and build a schedule around it like they did.

    I think if companies can even just start with 1 or 2 days might help tremendously with a person’s health. And it still gives you the interaction with your colleagues. I’m sure you’ve seen many studies regarding how rotating shifts has a negative impact on one’s health. This aviation company I speak about is a great model for what can be done if implemented successfully.

  • candacallais

    Haha…I love this blog you have going. As I work shift exclusively I can certainly sympathize with those who do/have and it is tough at times. I always understood that virtually ANY entry-level met job was going to entail a rotating shift, whether private sector or NWS, so that wasn’t a surprise. The 12 hour shifts at my company can be tiring depending on how well I’ve slept and whether I’m sick. Sometimes it sucks, other times it flies. It seems like most mets do their time and then switch to a more normal schedule (8×5) when they are able to move up into a position that allows this, typically at a managerial or directorial level.

    For me, I love forecasting though and while I am not a huge fan of the rotating shifts, I enjoy the details of my job much more. Would I take a job with normal hours if it meant little or no operational forecasting? Perhaps. When I started out as a wind meteorologist I had no kids, but will soon have three so the adjustment will be tough. It takes a real love…a fiery passion…for weather to do this job. That’s why I do it.

  • candacallais

    BUT, I do think there will be a move to do more offsite work through virtual commuting. Some aspects of my job could be accomplished fine from a remote location, such as analysis work (with secure access to the proprietary data ensured), extended forecasts of wind resource and perhaps even the day-ahead forecast (though sometimes there’s important verbal discussion with traders surrounding complex weather situations). Real-time forecasting will probably always need to be done in physical presence with traders, or at least through a video conference setting as there is a lot of verbal information exchanged throughout the shift.

  • UKmetman

    Yes – I believe shift work ruined my health after 12 years on it from age 19-32-ish.
    Did “days” next spell 1977-2001. Depends on how you are predisposed genetically to the thing. I know other guys did 40 years of it and lived into their 80s after retirement at 60.
    One poor man died on the 1st day pf retirement at 60!
    UKmetman.