Spotlight on: night workers

What do the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Bhopal chemical blast, and the Chernobyl nuclear explosion have in common? Apart from the huge loss of life and long-term environmental damage, all three disasters were caused by ‘human error’ – and more specifically, by people working night shifts.

Top jobs

And much as we might like to think that night work is restricted to those in poorly-paid, ‘unimportant’ jobs, there are many drivers, pilots, machine-operators and doctors involved, too. Consider newsreader Dermot Murnaghan, who recently likened getting up at 3.45am daily for five years to having permanent jet lag.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that one million UK employees now work night shifts, so this issue needs to be addressed.

Tiredness and severe lack of sleep tend to creep up on workers. People might think they can cope with working night shifts, but the reality is that tiredness and inability to adjust to staying awake while everyone else is noisily getting on with their lives can make you ill.

Once the circadian rhythm, or the body clock, as it’s more commonly known, is disturbed, it can take months to correct. Those who do manage to sleep will find their sleep disturbed by noise and daylight.

Poor diet

Gastrointestinal problems are also common among night workers, in particular loss of appetite, peptic ulcers and indigestion, according to Deborah Skene, of the University of Surrey.

Poor diet is an issue. While many night workers make a point of having dinner with their families at the usual time, they will then eat unhealthily during their shift. And working at night means they will have less opportunity to exercise, adding to the risk of cardiovascular problems to which they are already susceptible.

The mental impact is considerable. Night workers miss out on ‘normal’ social activities, particularly those that involve joining clubs or organisations. Their opportunities for interaction are limited.

Absenteeism

Accidents and the resulting lawsuits aside, employers of night workers are liable to increased absenteeism, as their staff struggle to balance work and family life.

Low productivity

Productivity suffers too – however well attuned they are to working at night, employees never quite lose the feeling that working while others are sleeping entitles them to work slightly less hard.

With all this considered, it’s time to look afresh at a practice which could cost you not just financially but through its impact on the wellbeing of your staff.

 How to manage your night workers

  • Provide a well-lit workspace. Blue-enriched white light is better at increasing alertness than ordinary white light.
  • Supply a range of caffeinated drinks, not just coffee.
  • Encourage employees to get some sleep both before and after shifts.
  • Recommend they create a dark, quiet place to sleep.
  • Remember that you need to plan night work as exactly that: it’s not just day work at a different time.

Source: Lynette James, PhD student, Surrey Sleep Research Centre, University of Surrey

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