Wakey Waaaaakey!

January 22, 2014 11:16 am Published by

Doing the night shift throws the body “into chaos” and could cause long-term damage, warn researchers.

BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25812422

Shift work has been linked to higher rates of type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and cancer. Now scientists at the Sleep Research Centre in Surrey have uncovered the disruption shift work causes at the deepest molecular level. Experts said the scale, speed and severity of damage caused by being awake at night was a surprise.

Now, to say this is less than surprising is to drastically understate the case! I worked nights a lot. When I started at BBC Radio 2 in 1981, there was a mixed shift pattern to be worked, and I loved the nights. The folly of youth, though? I was just 20 when I joined R2, and I remember some of the old hands then saying “it’s ok for you young ‘uns, but wait til you get on a bit and you’ll find the nights less of a laugh!”. Needless to say, I thought they were exaggerating. What was I saying about the folly of youth?

Night shifts don’t really arise for me nowadays, but I know that the effects of any sort of unusually late, or disrupted night now take several days to shake off.

I worked a lot of nights through the 80s and 90s, though, and, looking back, I realise that there were definitely deleterious effects on my health. They sneak up on you, in a really insidious fashion. Comparing me now to me then, I realise that I was shorter of temper, shallower of thought and, at times, a total prat. I piled on weight, eating extra to stoke myself through the tiredness, and developed high blood pressure. It’s probably true that the stress of working for an uncaring and deeply unappreciative employer didn’t help, but I do believe the night shifts themselves played a significant part.

One of the things that irks night workers is how little the rest of the world does to try to accommodate their needs. When you’re having to try to sleep during the day, those everyday irritants like delivery services or utilities who are unable to give any idea of timings (so you’ve got gps tracking your vehicles’ every move, and you’re accounting for every second of staff time but you still haven’t a clue when they might be here? Yeah, right!) just become magnified.

At the risk of digressing, I recall that the BBC used to have a well equipped Occupational Health / Nurse facility in-house. Of course, it operated Monday to Friday 0930-1730. My, how the shift workers appreciated it!

I don’t pretend to know what the solution is, given that we will always need people to work nights in all sorts of industries. One thought, though, however unpalatable it may be to bean counters, is that hours of work at night should count as more hours than their daytime equivalent, when it comes to accounting for a person’s working time. Another is that mixed shift patterns can be hell, if not properly thought through with regard to their effect on the humans working them. When I look back at a sample week or two from the 80s, (day shift, late followed immediately by early, night, night, for example) I don’t know how I did it for so long, but I sure as heck know I couldn’t do it now, without becoming seriously miserable!

One facet of nights that I think many workers appreciate is that, generally, The Management aren’t around, so their ability to wind you up is reduced. On the other hand, there may be more time to reflect on your (and your colleagues’) perceptions of Management misdeeds, which can lead to very unhelpful festering of thought. I think it takes a really skilled management, devoting a lot of care, to engage and motivate an out-of-hours workforce and keep them feeling loved. If, hypothetically, you were to find yourself working for a management that ignores you, forgets you’re there, and regularly belittles your contribution, you might easily become angry, demotivated, bitter and depressed.

I often wonder if this is part of what lies behind the historically chronic Industrial Relations problems at Royal Mail. They have a history of wildcat strikes and discontent at many offices, and I’d love to know whether they have ever seriously evaluated the part possibly played by the nights and very early starts that are a fact of life for a significant part of their workforce.

There we have it; a few thoughts from someone with a lot of night shift miles under the belt, and a few scars to show for it. I wish these researchers continued success in their exploration of this very important issue.

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