Researchers warn that working on the night shift throws the body into chaos and could cause long-term damage like higher rates of type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and cancer.
UK scientists at the Sleep Research Center in Surrey have uncovered the way night work causes deep molecular disruption. The scale, speed and severity of damage caused by being awake at night gave experts a surprise.
Blood tests showed that normally 6% of genes (the instructions contained in DNA) were precisely timed to be more or less active at specific times of the day. Once the volunteers were working through the night, that genetic fine-tuning was lost.
The human body has its own natural rhythm or body clock tuned to sleep at night and be active during the day. This is so true for me. If a change occurs in my normal routine, my day is disrupted.
According to the study, changing our night-day habit has profound effects on the body, altering everything from hormones and body temperature to athletic ability, mood and brain function.
It's law in the UK for every night worker to undergo a free health assessment before they begin. Employers must make sure that workers don’t work more than an average of 8 hours in a 24-hour period. Workers can’t opt out of this working limit. Employers must keep records of night workers’ hours to prove they aren’t exceeding limits for at least 2 years.
I've never had a job at night, but my husband once worked as a private hire driver in a late shift, finishing at 2am. He enjoyed taking television personalities home after their performance at the Elstree Studios, and other assignments. This stemmed from a lifetime of remaining awake at night. As a child, his father would take him and his brother to private night gatherings while he played the piano. They came to anticipate their outing. My husband maintained the late night habit right through his life. Now he's retired, he watches late movies and wakes at around midday. It doesn't worry me. I retire at 10pm, sleep soundly and wake early to a peaceful morning of writing.
I can't see a way out of the night worker's problem. The services they supply are vital. Just imagine if a driver on a dark road crashed into another. Any accident victims would have to wait for daylight to be rescued and transported to hospital.
Surely the people who do these vital jobs need more support like regular health checks and alternating work times with other people.