How early risers catch the worm

UP EARLY: Breakfast host Toni Street.
UP EARLY: Breakfast host Toni Street.

Matt Cameron is not up with the birds; he's up with the cows. Five minutes out of Methven, the 21-year-old is two months into his job as a dairy farmer, helping manage more than 500 cows. He's one of four working the 137-hectare farm, recently bought by his parents. It's a lovely spot, he says, with a view of Mount Hutt and Mount Somers.

He's out of bed at 4.30am and after a quick breakfast of tea and toast, father and son head out to start milking.

This wraps up around 10am when Cameron says it's time for a "proper breakfast" of bacon, eggs, toast and baked beans, served up, "more often than not" by mum.

HARD WORKER: Matt Cameron is up with the cows each day for milking.
HARD WORKER: Matt Cameron is up with the cows each day for milking.

Cameron grew up on a farm - the early starts are not foreign territory. He is an ex-rower, used to morning training sessions. He prefers the south, loves the landscape and enjoys working with cows.

But his day sounds exhausting. Post-bacon, the boys are back on the bovine beat by 10.30am, shifting cows between paddocks until lunchtime. After this Cameron says he tries to have a "nana nap".

"I try and grab a rest when I can," he says.

While he doesn't have much time for a social life, he does regularly Skype and call his girlfriend of three years, star New Zealand rower Kayla Pratt, who is based in Karapiro.

Cameron's afternoon continues with cleaning and milking, milking and cleaning, until 7pm.

After that, he says, "it's dinner, shower and bed''.

''I usually get a day off a week, sometimes two. There are really only four of us on the farm so you do fatigue quite quickly and you need to have a rest.''

Meanwhile, up-country, TVNZ Breakfast presenter Toni Street is awake at 3.45am to prepare for each morning's show.

"I shower the night before, I have my clothes all laid out. It's like a military operation. Up, bang, clothes on and out the door," she says.

Street, 30, has been broadcasting for eight years. She started at TVNZ as an intern and says she has worked "the whole spectrum of hours" but by far prefers the early shifts.

She says her lark-like nature has been passed down from her father, a dairy farmer. Bedtime is 8.30pm and Street aims for seven hours' sleep.

"Sometimes it really, really sucks, because all I want to do is sit there and watch Grey's Anatomy, but the consequences are I'll be a hopeless mum because I'll be so shattered I can't even keep my eyes open. So being disciplined with bed times is huge."

Street is nine months into her Breakfast job, and credits husband Matt as the "crucial support" that allows her to cope well at work and manage the demands of their one-year-old daughter, Juliette.

"She's teething and her two front teeth have just come through. I was up every half hour last night until midnight," Street says.

"I have a partner who is really regimented. He takes a lot of the responsibility when it comes to things like housework and washing and he's the one that's often saying to me, 'get to bed!'"

Street says the pros far outweigh the cons.

"I think of all the positives about why I am doing it. It's a great job; I love my job. I get to spend time with my daughter, so I think, 'It's not that big of a deal. I'm going to be home soon. It's going to go really fast.' Things go fast in the mornings and that's another positive. But it's such a mental game."

Street and Cameron are part of a small minority in the Kiwi workforce. According to Statistics New Zealand, only five per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 years is involved in early morning work.

The number creeps up to eight per cent at 6am and is at 43 per cent by 8am.

Psychologist Sara Chatwin says a job requiring this kind of commitment needs to "stack up" for people.

"The people that are drawn to these careers are those who can cope with it. They would have known what was called for," she says.

"These people will need to reschedule things; for instance, plan sleep around work. Most research suggests that between five to eight hours is what we need. If you are running on the thin side of five, it can affect mood and the ability to make decisions."

She says there are schools of thought to suggest shift work does have a shelf life.

"The human body can only take so much. There are people who have kids over a period of 15 years. Say they have five kids, one every three years - that's 15 years of sleep deprivation right there. But it's very individually based. There is a percentage of people who can handle it."

Dr Alex Bartle has been in the business of sleep medicine for 14 years and is director of the five Sleep Well clinics located around New Zealand.

He talks a lot about "chronotypes". Without sounding too science-fictiony, the term refers to whether you are a lark or an owl - and if you are an owl trapped in the confines of lark-requiring employment, he says you will be suffering.

"Early mornings are the most difficult unless you are a particularly morning type of person. These are the type of people who want to go to bed at nine and get up at five. The only people that will cope well with early mornings are the morning chronotypes."

Bartle says most of us are in-betweeners who like to head for the covers around 10-10.30pm and wake around 6.30am.

Then there is our circadian clock - our biological sleep/wake mechanism. Bartle says a circadian clock is genetically predetermined, but it can be rewired.

"A sharemilker, if they keep getting up at a certain time, will shift their circadian clock. But they have to keep doing it. The sharemilker has it easier because of the [consistent] nature of their job," he says.

He says those who do get days off should try and keep as close as they can to their wake times - maybe a 6am rise, instead of a 3am, 'for a treat'.

"On the weekend you should still get up early otherwise it's a nightmare to get up on Monday morning."

Elaine Rush, professor of nutrition at AUT, says one downside of shift work is a tendency to choose junk food. Her advice?

"Plan ahead and try and keep snacks to a hundred calories. Fruit such as green bananas are a good choice because they have a slower release of energy."

Rush says water is best to avoid dehydration but gives caffeine the tick, as long as it is not too much.

"It can make one jittery and anxious," she says, prescribingtwo coffees a day maximum.

Pilot Gareth Wrenn can testify to his love/hate relationship with coffee. He used to drink it all the time while he was in the air, but realised its effects were detrimental.

"Flying dehydrates you a lot. The air is really dry,everything is really air-conditioned and when you are staying in an air-conditioned hotel, it just adds to it."

Wrenn's morning shifts start at 3.30am and he does three or four of these on any given week. A trans-Tasman pilot for Qantas, his flights take him to Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane and he's generally home by mid afternoon.

Also the parent of a toddler, he too acknowledgesthe pay-offs of the outside-of-the-norm work day.

"I think I probably have more time at home than most nine-to-five dads do because of the way the roster works. That's a real benefit.

"I'm also a little bit more spontaneous, so I don't mind that rostered environment. A nine-to-five job would do my head in if I knew what I was going to be doing every day," he says.

Fatigue is a well-managed issue in the aviation industry, says Wrenn.

He recalls one sleepless night with his newborn that resulted in him pulling out of a shift.

"I had literally had no sleep. I tried to go to bed at 11pm and my daughter was up from 12am, then I started watching the clock and when you do that you just get more anxious.

"I rang work and told them I wasn't going to fly... I think it's just maturity on everybody's part, recognising that in our industry it's a potential problem and that the negative outcomes of fatigue are catastrophic, so no one is prepared to take that risk."

Wrenn says he is used to the up and down nature of shift work, and his wife is a nurse, "so we have a mutual understanding".

"To me it doesn't seem to be a big deal because it is my life and it always has been. Along the way you just learn how to cope with it really. It just seems normal - although it's completely abnormal."

Sunday Star Times