Whether it’s tending to patients in a hospital or keeping the streets safe, night shifts are necessary for the world to function as it does. Unfortunately for those who work these graveyard shifts, though, they can make you susceptible to a number of health issues.
According to the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which represents trade unions throughout England and Wales, three million Britons — making up 11.5% of all employees — work night shifts. This marks a 5% increase in night shift workers since 2013.
Clive*, a frequent night shift worker, gave us a little insight into what it is like to work these shifts.
“Physically, I find I’m tired throughout the day, and on a night I’ve got loads of energy,” he said. “It’s the same on weekends when I’m not working. If I have to be up early on a weekend to go somewhere, I’m less likely to be keen to do it, so I’ll end up missing on events. On a night when I’m wide awake, everyone else is tired. So I’ll end up by myself a lot.”
Not only can this prevent those who work night shifts from being able to socialise, it takes a physical toll. People who work night shifts often end up out of sync with the rest of the world because they sleep against their body’s natural circadian cycle.
The circadian cycle is the body’s pattern of releasing melatonin — a hormone that makes us drowsy, dictating when we should be asleep or alert, and causing our ability to focus to fluctuate throughout the day. When these rhythms are disrupted, it causes a number of issues. This is the experience of many night shift workers.
One of these problems is the aptly named Shift Work Disorder, which causes sufferers to experience symptoms such as insomnia, tiredness and difficulty focusing. These are difficult afflictions to live with every day of your life. While Clive has been lucky (“There have been a few incidents where I’ve misread information late on a night, but nothing serious”), it can be dangerous, especially for those in professions where night shifts are a regular occurrence, such as nurses and police officers.
Most companies follow EU regulation so that after two years, you work the day shift to alter your body back to normal. But that isn’t very well enforced
Thankfully, there a number of things that can be done to help you get by when working night shifts. The BBC outlines a number of recommendations, including avoiding becoming reliant on caffeine to stay awake or alcohol to stay asleep, and taking precautions to ensure you are not disturbed when sleeping during the day — such as turning off your mobile phone.
Another night shift worker, 22-year-old Sean Hassall from Heywood, Manchester, warns that health issues come with the territory. “If you do it for too long, it can lower your life expectancy,” he says. “Most companies follow EU regulation so that after two years, you work a day shift for half the year to alter your body back to normal. But that isn’t very well enforced.
“It’ll depend on what the job is and how well you get treated. Personally, I think if I manage it right, I’m fine. I definitely know people who live really unhealthily on night shifts and it probably isn’t good for them.”
The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers provides “advice and representation to workers in many different workplace”. Union member David Williams cites solid evidence that shift work causes significant health problems, explaining that it “increases risks of cardiovascular problems, obesity, diabetes, stomach ulcers and other digestive problems, and depression” and that there is growing evidence it’s linked to breast cancer.
“Work-related injuries are also increased for night shift workers,” he adds.
The overall conclusion seems to be that night shift workers, by and large, suffer mentally and physically. But for some, these hours are non-negotiable. They are forced to learn how to live with these side effects if they don’t want to lose their job.
*Name has been changed at interviewee’s request
Featured image: Barnzy