Fast Track: Working round the clock

Today's employees are having to adapt as the 24-hour society draws nearer. By Lynne Butt
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If you burned the midnight oil at university and produced your most brilliant essays in the middle of the night, you may just have a head start in the big, wide world. After all, emphasises the sociologist Michael Willmott, of the Future Foundation, the 24-hour society has arrived.

"There are 1 million people at work at any time between 9pm and 1am in the UK, and this figure is likely to double in the next 10 years," he explains. "There seems to be no problem in recruiting staff for night working and there are huge opportunities here. It's all part of the push for excellence in customer service, and that means involving many more people - including graduates."

Imagine it. We'll be able to add such activities as divorce-filing and house-buying to the telebanking, open-all-hours supermarkets, all-night bars and late-night gyms that we are currently privileged to enjoy. Already, a staggering 20 per cent more people watch television between 3am and 6am than did so a mere four years ago, and the number of telephone calls made in the wee hours has quadrupled in the last 10 years.

Increased globalisation is removing time barriers, says Willmott, the major consequence of which is that there are fewer limits on when we can do the most mundane things. "It's all part of the movement away from a manufacturing based society to one that is service-based," he says.

Particularly prominent is the growth in activity from 6pm to midnight, reflected chiefly in later hours of business for bars and shops. But, predict experts, the peak is likely to shift later. Russell Craig, of Tesco, says: "Our aim is to have a 24-hour store in every major urban area. The number of people shopping at 3am will never be the same as it is at 3pm, but there is a definite demand."

Sarah White, a psychologist, believes that for employees of the future the benefits will be enormous. "If there are no limits to the beginning and end of the day, people will have the option of spreading out their workload. You won't have to think, 'Damn, it's nearly 5pm and I still have 18 phone calls to make.' In turn, people will probably be less stressed. And when you consider that stress is the major cause of people taking time off work, this couldn't be better news for employers."

In addition, she claims, it will finally provide natural night-owls with a chance to work at their best. "The fact is that many people work better in the early hours but, until recently, most of them had to compromise that characteristic."

But, as anyone who has suffered jet-lag knows, up-ending our natural circadian rhythm - or body clock - can play havoc with sleep patterns. And experts claim that typical student solutions, - using ear plugs to sleep during the day, taking Pro-Plus to stay alert for the night - can become detrimental over time. In fact, studies of shift workers, including nursing and factory work, reveal that they are more likely than their day-working counterparts to fall sick, to suffer from digestive and back complaints, to have problems with personal relationships and to have less and poorer quality sleep.

Alex McKie of the Henley Centre, which has just produced a report on the future of work - claims that a 24-hour lifestyle will ultimately mean shift work.

Dr Elfed Morgan, of Birmingham University, who is currently conducting research into the effects of shift work, says that people considering working through the night should first determine whether they are larks or owls. Contrary to popular opinion, he claims, this characteristic is not usually changeable, not least because it is inherited to some extent. "There is evidence that larks - or morning people - fare less well on night shifts," he explains.

Coincidentally, Dr Morgan's daughter Tabitha recently worked her first night shift in a BBC newsroom, and is quick to admit that she was not looking forward to the experience. "I'd heard horror stories from those who hate them," she explains, adding: "I didn't feel so much tired as rather detached during the small hours. And it was very odd going home to bed as everyone else arrived for work."

Ben Williams is one of many psychologists who claims that shift work affects mood, self esteem and optimism and should be approached with huge respect. "Extra care is required if you have an important decision to make during the night or when you are exhausted. Problem-solving skills are diminished and everything seems just that much more difficult."

John Escolme is a broadcaster who has done his share of overnight shifts as well as earlies and lates. "I find I crave food, but never know which meal to eat at 3am, so I often end up eating four times a day while on shifts," he says. Fortunately, however, he can nap anywhere at any time, and finds it easy to adjust to regular shifts. "Rotating ones are the killer - you never know where you are. It's impossible socially, and you end up feeling depressed and unwell."

Indeed, research reveals that the rotating shift causes the most havoc of all working patterns - even to night-owls. Taking brief rest periods may help to overcome this, and some people - such as Tabitha Morgan - resort to taking sleeping pills to get a good day's sleep.

But there are other methods. Since our circadian rhythm basically responds to light, some shift workers are now buying light boxes to zap themselves with an energising boost before they start a shift. Others are trying out doses of synthetically produced melatonin, the natural chemical that is normally produced by the brain at night when we are sleeping.

However, Caroline Lee, who joined Brann Telemarketing last October, is one of a growing number of people who are completely unfazed by the prospect of shift work. She is one of six on Brann's graduate training scheme in Bristol and believes that night work is a natural progression because today's graduates are used to working longer hours than ever before. "If you apply to a 24-hour telemarketing company, you know what is expected of you," she says. "I'm used to working long hours, and you just fit your life around the job."

Lee is convinced that people of her age group will make the 24-hour society flourish. "I think I can speak for all of us on this course - we are totally committed and keen to get on and we don't see shift work as a problem, just part of the job."

The Future Foundation agrees it is younger and more affluent people who want more flexible hours of service, and says that this group is often a good indicator of future mainstream developments.

Research also shows that women may be better at coping with night shifts than men - which may, arguably, have some link with the maternal instinct. Many women say that once they have had a baby and experienced broken nights, they are permanently "listening out", even when asleep.

So if you are not only a night-owl but also female, you may have more chance than ever of being ahead of a game that - in less than a decade - will become the norm.