Gudrun Limbrick looks at modern shift work.

If we take the idea of the working day right back to where it was first conceived, it was outside factors that must have given rise to our working hours. We needed the animals to be awake for us to hunt; daylight for us to work on the land; daylight to build our houses. As time moved on, we brought more standardisation to the working day, adopting to same start and finish times each day. When it came to those lines of work which were not dependent on needing daylight, we settled on a basic day of 9am to 5pm, importantly, the people we needed to link with were also adopting the same standard working day so we could expect that they too would be at work when we needed to contact them. Of course, there have always been exceptions: farmers have no choice but to start early and work until the daylight disappears, those who fish work at night to get the best catch, those in health and emergency services adopted shifts to provide 24-hour cover. Other lines of work, while not needing to do so because of daylight or fish activity, have also moved into 24-hour days with factories working constantly.

So we come to today. We now have less and less need to stick to the traditional 9am to 5pm working day, and seemingly, every reason not to. We can create comfortable working environments whatever the time of day and reliance on car commutes means that people can get to work whenever they need to. The demand for increasing flexibility in the working day from those of us wanting to fit it in with the other demands on our lives and time mean that, not only are their people who will work non-traditional hours if they have to, but there are also people who are actively seeking out peculiar hours. The globalisation of our markets, and in many cases, our own companies, means that we are not so dependent on working 9 to 5 because that is when everyone else is working. Globally, someone is working whatever the time and the demand is there for individual companies to follow suit. When people are working non-standard hours, service industries are following suit — transport, retail, the finance sector and entertainment are, to different degrees, hoping to gain custom through adopting non-standard hours.

More than three million people in the UK are now working night shifts. That amounts to 1 in every 12 working people — a very significant minority. Many others have working days that do not qualify as night shifts but are outside the standard working day — early mornings and late evenings. There is also an uncounted, and yet probably growing, group of worker who, either as independent entrepreneurs or home-working employees, are organising their own work time to include late nights — working while the baby sleeps, for example. These are all growing trends. The proportion of people working night shifts, for example, rose nearly 7% between 2007 and 2014.

It seems obvious that working long hours can have a negative effect on our health. Tiredness drags us down physically and mentally. But what is the impact on us of changing where our working day slots into our 24-hour day? Is messing about with our “body clock” a genuine problem? Many people say that it suits them or that they get used to it but even these people may be at a greater risk of some serious health problems.

In order to comply with the Working Time Regulations 1998, an employer must ensure that an employee does not work, on average, more than 8 night-time hours in each 24-hour period. Any worker also has a right to 11 hours of consecutive rest each day and the right to a rest break if the working day is longer than 6 hours. However, while this protection is in place, does it go far enough to protect workers?

Recent research carried out by the University of Surrey, in which participants had their sleep patterns deliberately disrupted, found that those with unusual sleep patterns had a six-fold reduction in the number of genes with a circadian rhythm — the clock that regulates the daily cycles of our bodies as we change from day to night and wakefulness to sleep. This included many regulators associated with transcription and translation, indicating widespread disruption to many biological processes. In other words, we can reset our alarm clock to get us out of bed in the middle of the night, but we cannot reset our body’s processes so easily.

It is perhaps these “lags” in how our body deals with changes in our sleep patterns, that causes the health problems that night shift working is thought to create. Problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and breast cancer have all be reported as being linked with night shift working.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) describes the possible impacts of shift work as including:

  • disruption of the internal body clock

  • fatigue

  • sleeping difficulties

  • disturbed appetite and digestion

  • reliance on sedatives and/or stimulants

  • social and domestic problems.

All of these things may not only impact on the wellbeing of employees but also on their ability to carry out their duties.

The TUC has looked into the increasing occurrence of shift working and how the potential impacts can be mitigated. The basic message, in the ensuing report entitled “a hard day’s night”, appears to be that we cannot simply sleepwalk into a working environment in which we ask employers to take on non-standard hours. Their key recommendation is that night working should only be introduced where it is absolutely necessary and that, where it is introduced, no worker is made to work nights if they do not wish to do so. Night working, it is clear should not be another profit-making tool, but an option only undertaken by an employer where there is little or no other choice.

Another key recommendation is that employees should have an element of control over their shift-working so that a mutually acceptable shift pattern can be worked out. Any changes to the shifts to be worked should not be made at short notice.

The report also recommends that shift workers have the same access to facilities as other workers, such as meals, refreshments and rest areas, and that remuneration for night workers takes account of the likely increased costs of childcare and general inconvenience.

The Working Time Regulations states that night workers should have access to free health assessments. The TUC report calls for greater enforcement of this.

We chose 9 to 5 as our standard working day. It suited the daylight available, the time we needed to have breakfast and it gave us time to relax before needing to go to bed while giving us time with our families. These are very basic needs that human beings need. We are moving ever closer to 24-hour cities and myriad ways of fitting the working day into that 24-hour period. The precise impact this could have on our short-term efficiency and our long-term health is, as yet, unknown, but the general consensus seems to be that the impact will be negative. Now is the time to step back and consider how we can protect shift workers before it is too late.

Last reviewed 11 April 2016