On Call Work is a Form of Torture

Learned helplessness is often used as a put-down of sorts, but in reality it describes the effect of randomly applying negative stimulus. You’ll notice that one of the things that promotes the condition there is torture.

On-call work is sometimes thought to be a necessary evil, but I’ve come to realize that for me, at least, it has outsized negative effects. If you go home and try to relax, but at random intervals you are asked to do work, then you gain no benefit from the time at home. Self-care doesn’t help here, because you truly are not in control of the conditions under which a call may arise.

In an on-call role, you are subconsciously trained to never stop worrying about work. This leads to always-on mentality and workaholism in some cases. This is vastly different from regular workaholism, however, in that the tools which would normally help to avoid overwork are explicitly denied to the on-call individual.

Imagine, for a moment, you were asked, once every few weeks, to do an overnight shift for your job. You might object, or you might embrace the challenge, but what you would probably not do is expect that overnight to follow and be followed by a full day of work. This is what on-call is in its natural state: an off-hours work shift that is bracketed by regular work shifts. We imagine that it’s ok, because you don’t get many calls, but in truth the situation is that you simply cannot benefit from rest hours when you have a dice roll chance of being called for issues that may or may not require immediate intervention.

I don’t have a solution for this, but I had a situation at work today that put it clearly into focus for me. My frustration with off-hours work has been primed by the better part of a year doing it, and now irregular calls to correct problems are extremely distressing. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.