A working nightmare

Late-shift workers die younger than day staff. Lucy McDonald reveals how to survive the dark side of employment

Tuesday 12 October 2004 00:00

Insomnia is a strange thing to wish for. Being wide-eyed and full of beans at 3am is not a desirable state of affairs for most of us. But, for me, it is not just desirable but necessary, and, along with the nation's seven million night workers, it is doing me no good at all.

Insomnia is a strange thing to wish for. Being wide-eyed and full of beans at 3am is not a desirable state of affairs for most of us. But, for me, it is not just desirable but necessary, and, along with the nation's seven million night workers, it is doing me no good at all.

Given the choice, I would rather be tucked up in bed by the end of News at Ten's bongs. But, as a reporter for the breakfast television programme GMTV, I work shifts. And the real killer is the night shift, from 10pm to 10am. I love my job but working when it's pitch black outside feels incredibly unnatural and sometimes I feel I live in a parallel universe to friends and family. While they are sleeping, I am working; while they are out drinking, I am munching my muesli.

I am not alone. A Future Foundation report published last month predicted that, by 2020, the number of people working shifts will have nearly doubled to 13 million. There is a startling paucity of research into this burgeoning workforce, and there is conflicting advice and opinions on its effects. But the website of the country's biggest union, Unison, finds an excellent, if frightening, report on the dangers, which includes the assertion that: "Shift workers die younger than day workers. Prolonged lack of sleep is thought to be the cause."

It goes on: "The older the worker, the less tolerant they are to withstanding the adverse effects of shift work... It disrupts the body's circadian rhythms, that is, its daily cycle, causing tiredness, mental stress, cardio-vascular diseases, gastro-intestinal disorders, menstrual disorders, reproductive system dysfunction and increased accidents." Phew. And Hugh Robertson, the head of health and safety at the TUC, says: "Ideally, people wouldn't work shifts - they come with so many health warnings. Accidents are more likely to occur because people are tired."

The Unison report - Negotiating on Shifts - also cites research that found shift workers are 40 per cent more likely to get heart disease. If you are still not convinced, consider Tony Blair. He gets by on five hours sleep a night - perhaps someone should have shown him a Maastricht University study, which says working odd hours puts the body under chronic stress, leading to a potentially fatal increase in abnormal heart rhythms. There is also an increased risk of breast cancer. A Danish study of 7,000 women who worked nights found they were one and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease.

Dr Graham Archard, a former night-shift veteran and a spokesman for the Royal College of GPs, is more optimistic. He says: "If you do nothing but night work, there is no risk. Difficulties come when people swap between night and day. That stuffs you, as far as the biological clock is concerned." He dismisses any link with cancer and heart disease but says such work does have adverse effects. "It sends your hormones up the Swanee," he says. "Often, women who work nights have delayed periods or missed periods. Sleeping patterns are disrupted, so the immune system is affected. People who work shifts are generally off sick more and there is anecdotal evidence it causes depression."

When I work nights, even on the rare occasions I get eight hours sleep, I still feel terrible. I get spots and headaches, my eyes dry out and I become moody and anxious. Stefan Chmelik, a Chinese medical physician at London's Life Centre, is not surprised. "The body wasn't made to work nights and, according to Chinese medicine, some functions can only be performed at night," he says. "Between 1am and 3am, the liver uses this time to clean the blood, which it can only do if the body's resting. Failure to do so causes poor eyesight, a sallow complexion, and dry hair and skin. It can also cause irritability, anger and frustration."

There are measures you can take to make night working more bearable long term. For starters, get a good day's kip: get home before you sleep; block out the world outside; have a pre-bed drink (alcoholic - a couple of glasses of wine; or non-alcoholic -hot milk or water); and just say no to drugs. Instead, have a hot bath or sniff lavender oil.

Also, Dr Archard says routine is important, and the jury is out on what's the best diet and eating pattern. Although Claire Williamson, from the British Nutrition Foundation, says eating healthily is the main priority.

One of the worst aspects of night work is the lack of facilities. No canteen; no gym; no e-mail banter. But there are up sides. No rush-hour; no queue at the call centre if you want to pay a bill. And it's reassuring to know, whether people are working or bona fide insomniacs, that you're not the only one awake.


* Humans are not by nature nocturnal creatures and our bodies are programmed to sleep and repair at night and function in the day. If someone stays up all night they will feel increasingly fatigued until a peak at 5am and then tiredness decreases until the evening.

* Most night-shift workers endure longer shifts than people who work days. Your body needs two to three days to adjust between day and night shifts.

* Exercise helps to regulate body rhythms. Starting the day with some light exercise can help you adjust to changing shift patterns.A short cat nap at work can maintain performance.

* People who sleep in the day may need the lavatory more than at night. The hormone produced in the kidneys at night to stop us urinating takes longer to adjust to body-clock changes.

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