The dangers of night shift working and the case for treating night workers differently.

As you will know if you’ve seen my recent posts, I have been reading Life Time by Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, University of Oxford.  Well, this morning I finished the book.

Whilst the whole book is fascinating, and I have learned so much, as an HR professional, one of the biggest impacts on me has been how do we deal with mitigating the dangers of night working.

Working nights carries a much greater risk of developing the following diseases.

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease

It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol and drug dependency
  • Alzheimer’s and dementia

Plus, the sleep and circadian rhythm disruption (SCRD) related to night working is linked to poor decision making, micro sleeps and lapses in concentration.

Professor Foster points to many well-known disasters that have been linked back to sleep deprivation and workers suffering from SCRD.

  • Exxon Valdez oil tanker
  • Chernobyl nuclear power plant
  • Bhopal chemical plant
  • Challenger Space shuttle

And heartbreakingly a July 2020 report by ROSPA shows that driver fatigue maybe a factor in 20% of road accidents, but that these types of crashes are 50% more likely to result in death or serious injury as the driver is asleep and can’t brake or swerve.

But night shift work is not going away, without it we couldn’t run our hospitals, police our streets, or get our produce where it needs to be on time.

Before the pandemic my local supermarket was one of those open 24 hours, during the pandemic the hours were limited to 0800-2000 and they have never returned to 24 hours choosing now to open 0600-2200. I would like to think this was a decision driven by an understanding of employee wellbeing and the effects of shift work, but let’s face it, it was much more likely to be a commercial decision based on cost to open through the night and takings during that period.

But this kind of change is rare, societal demands for an “always on” culture is pushing more and more people into working unsociable hours. “1 in 8 UK workers now work nights” that’s more than 3 million individuals.

Nurses, doctors, midwives, police officers and HGV drivers these are night workers that society can’t do without.  Perversely, we rely on these people to make life and death decisions and work under the most extreme pressure, when the science is telling us that their working conditions are undeniably impairing their ability to do so.

What can we do to ease the burden?

Medical screening

  • Should employers provide enhanced medical screening for night shift workers?
  • Should HMRC waive the benefit in kind tax burden for PMI provided to night shift workers?

Wellbeing/Diet and Exercise

  • Should night shift workers get free gym memberships (again free from the tax burden)
  • Some employers provide free vitamin D to shift workers through the winter. Are there other supplements that could be provided to night shift workers?
  • What about diet?  One of the reasons that night work leads to obesity and diabetes is because night shift workers not only eat at the wrong time but because they are suffering from SCRD they are more likely to make unhealthy choices.
  • So, can employers provide healthy meals pre/post shift, or nutritious packed lunches?  What about subscriptions to meal box plans to help with healthy choices at home?

Breaks and rest periods.

  • Should night working attract longer rest periods?  Research is already demonstrating the huge positive impact of a 4-day week on us day time workers, should night work be restricted to no more than 2 or 3 shifts in a row, with a block of time off immediately afterwards?
  • Should night workers be entitled to more statutory holiday time? If you work more than 30% on nights maybe you qualify for an extra 3 or more days holiday per annum.
  • Should we have different sickness triggers for night workers i.e., if your sickness policy says 3 incidents of sickness in a 6-month rolling period starts an absence management process, maybe it’s 5 incidents for the night shift.

Financial benefits

  • Should more employers shoulder the commuting cost for night workers providing buses and taxis to and from work.
  • Should we increase shift premiums to reflect the dangerous health conditions our night workers are exposing themselves to?
  • Should we provide critical illness cover as a matter of course for night workers (again free from any tax burden).

And how about we revolutionise shift patterns.

Professor Foster explains that we all have a different chronotype, we are either a morning or evening type or an intermediary.  Sometimes the morning and evening types are referred to as Larks and Owls.  You can easily do a test to determine your type – I’m an intermediary, which explains why years of getting up at 4am to take my son to the pool for 5am-7am swim training, then getting the train to London, doing a day’s work getting straight off the train and back to the pool to pick him up after his 5pm-7pm swim training, nearly killed me.

What if we have shifts that start at 10pm and finish at 3am and we aim those at evening types (people who wouldn’t normally go to bed until the early hours).  And the next shift starts at 3am and finishes at 8am and we look to recruit morning types.  Those who naturally get up at dawn or before.

Now I am not prescribing a “nanny state” any of these ideas should be implemented on an opt in basis and I don’t know what the answer is BUT I find this topic fascinating and I do believe there are things we could do to make our night shifts safer and more productive.

If you are interested in having a discussion about how you can revolutionise your night shift, then please get in touch.

Link to book: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/321815/life-time-by-foster-russell/9780241529317

Sarah Cook

Managing Director – WeDo HR Support

Give us a buzz: 0330 900 8787

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