The number of retail workers who rely upon night work for their primary shift structure grew by 50% in the decade between 2007 and 2017, according to research for the BBC 5 Live show Wake Up to Money [1].

While the proportion of workers who juggle morning and night shifts was 18% 10 years ago, it now stands at 27%. Retail analyst Catherine Shuttleworth tells the BBC: “Online is the biggest change in the sector and the requirement for delivery in 24 hours or less means more retailers are working shift patterns that will be across and through the night.”

However, there are signs that the trend is taking its toll, with worker Amy – who began working two nights a week to avoid the childcare costs of having a day job – saying: “It's not worth the sacrifice. The time I'm with my boys, I'm stressed and tired. I'm not myself.” She adds: “When the kids are off [school] I basically just don't get any sleep. I'll be home for six o’clock and usually they get up for about eight o’clock. And so yes – basically, I stay awake.”

The dangers of prolonged sleeplessness arising from night work recently emerged from a study of more than 2,600 pastry workers in France, published in the British Medical Journal [2]. The study noted: “Of the respondents, 26.2% complained of chronic insomnia … The highest rate observed was for women in comparison with men, regardless of age group (24.1% vs 19.5%), with the highest rate (31%) occurring for women aged 45–54 years.”

It added: “Out of the total group, 12.4% complained of moderate excessive sleepiness, while 2.9% reported severe excessive sleepiness.” Of all whole sample, 21.1% reported that they had frequently fallen asleep while driving.

The study noted that the figures provide “a valuable opportunity to revisit the medical impact of work schedules on sleep habits and disorders. It is well reported that night work or irregular shifts have consequences on sleep, sleepiness and health, notably including metabolism, cardiovascular diseases and even breast cancer. These disorders have been attributed to the biological desynchronisation that affects melatonin and other hormonal cycles around the 24-hour cycle.”

With more and more of us turning to night shifts, what should employers do to boost their duty of care to these workers, who have made significant sacrifices in their personal lives to commit themselves in this way?

“You have to take care of the whole employee,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “It’s not enough to think about what your workers’ functions are when they are in the workplace, and what their outputs are as a result of putting in their hours. That means we must design workers’ jobs in a way that optimises their health and wellbeing. And helpfully, there are plenty of resources out there that can steer employers in the right direction.”

Cooper points out: “the main organisation that is studying the effects of night work upon employees is the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which examines the field on an ongoing basis. They have produced a quick guide for employers, which highlights a variety of points that organisations should factor into their shift-work job designs. For a deeper dive into the same territory, they have also published the research report The Effects of Shift Work on Health. A more up to date article about the impacts of night shifts on workers’ health and wellbeing can be found on the IOSH website.”

For further thoughts on the healthy workplace, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Source refs: [1] [2]

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