Should you quit being on call?

Not all “call” is created the same.

There’s no one answer to the question asked above in the headline that makes sense for everyone, everywhere. 

Somebody needs to be on call for some businesses, industries, and jobs. Economics dictates it. It’s the way work is done, and it’s hard to change. 

While the person on call doesn’t necessarily have to be you, if it’s not you, you might end up looking for a new job.

You’re on call because someone may need the resources you have to provide during the night or off-hours.

When they call, you may be asleep. You may be out of the office for the night. The on-call period may stretch over the whole 24-hour day.

Then, again, because it’s sporadic, you can find yourself being called frequently during one stretch and then very infrequently during another. It all depends on factors beyond your control.

The amount you can be paid for being on call can vary greatly between employers, worksites, and careers. Sometimes it’s a terrible deal for you. Other times being on-call can turn out to be a sweet perk.

When you’re not called, little goes into earning the money that you get paid, however much it is. While you might have to stay in a geographic region or at a facility in a standby room, you’re free to do whatever you want, whether it’s read, watch movies, or sleep. We shouldn’t say it’s money for nothing. You’re being paid for the obligation. That’s something. And sometimes, while you’re not actually doing anything, the fact that you could be doing something else calls for compensation. It’s a subtle form of job stress.

Then there are the issues with being on call that are rare or unique to a particular employer. In one hospital I worked at, charge nurses frequently promised on-call pay. The person in charge of payroll, however, would miss the notations. You had to watch your paycheck stub closely to ensure you were being paid for any on-call shifts you accepted. Their frequent mistakes and the process of proving that you were on call during that time period, combined with the trivial amount you were being reimbursed (unless you were called in, which was paid at time-and-a-half) made it not worth being on call unless you were looking to pick up shifts. When you were called in, you were automatically paid time-and-a-half.

Being on-call and your sleep

Finally, there is the direct effect on your sleep. Do you have difficulty going back to sleep if you’re on call? Are you expected to be on call, called, and then have to come in, in the middle of the night? Is there a possibility that you’re going to have to spend a lot of time at work in the middle of the night dealing with a situation and then be expected to come in the next day? Never let yourself become sleep deprived.

Can you get good, refreshing sleep while you’re on call? Do you find yourself sleeping with one eye open? Studies have shown many people have difficulty getting restful sleep if they’re on call.

Further, do you have other obligations that might interfere with this arrangement? 

Finally, is there a way that the situation can change? Can you arrange it so that you’re rarely called in, so that the money for being on call truly becomes money for nothing?

Conversely, if it suits you, say you’re paid a whole lot of money for coming in and can defer more of your hours to this higher rate of pay, can you arrange it so that you’re constantly called and have to respond? How much freedom do you have in the process?

Being on call doesn’t have to be all bad. It can be a perk.

Determining your personal on-call situation

Ultimately, what matters is how well it suits you or how well it can be made to suit your situation. Deciding can be complicated.

Make a list of the positives of being on call on one side and the list of negatives on the other. For the best results, try to come up with at least five items on each side. Having some kind of quota encourages deep thought and challenges you to think of various situations. If you absolutely can’t come up with a negative or a positive, give it a “one” because there’s probably one there that you’re not able to deduce at the time you’re making your list. Chances are, it’s pretty minor.

Next, you’re going to rate it between one and three. If the item listed is a major factor, give it a three. If it’s a minor factor, give it a one. If it’s somewhere in between, rate it a two.

Make a list and decide

If you have problems getting and staying asleep, then the choice should be clear. Being on-call can ruin your health and even be dangerous.

If you don’t, if there are other concerns to sort through. Go ahead. Make the list described above.

Positives about being on call.

I don’t go out much at night anyway. It’s usually easy money.


I somewhat enjoy the idea of having to respond to something different. 3
I can stop by the supermarket in the middle of the night if I get called in and shop when the store is empty. 2
They let me come in later if I get called in. 1
I can stop and look at the stars. 1

Negatives about being on call.

I don’t feel safe driving in to work if I’m called in. 3
The sleeping room is always dirty and smells. 2
I’m called too frequently and I can’t get back to sleep. 3
One crew is fine. They’re able to resolve their issues. The other crew, not so much. They call too much. 2
My phone doesn’t ring and then I get in trouble. I could lose my job if I don’t respond. 3

Remember: someone might have to be on call; it doesn’t necessarily have to be you. 

Making a list of the positives and negatives can help you determine what’s important to you

Getting clear about what you want out of life and your job can help the organization meet your needs.

For Further Reading:

The strain of always being on call.

On call work and health

How to sleep less and stay healthy

Physical constraints, a tree, and you’re asleep at the wheel

Should sleep be your hobby?

Go on a mental vacation with sleeping sounds

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good

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