Ever felt that your job is killing you? Well if you’re one of 3.6 million shift workers in Britain, there’s a chance it is.
It’s well known that regularly working through the night puts a serious strain on workers’ health. It is strongly associated with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, ulcers and even genetic changes.
But shift work can also significantly harm the ability to think and remember. Researchers recently found that working rotating shifts for a decade or more can “age” the brain by an extra six and a half years.
And bosses’ demands for more “flexibility” and “efficiency” have ramped up the pressure.
Cliff, a bus driver in London, has worked nights for around 13 years. He told Socialist Worker, “The night shift is busier now than it was when I started. We do more journeys in our shifts—and the shift is an hour longer than it was.
“Every time I finish work I’m so tired I just want to go to sleep.”
Cliff said that working a series of different shifts was even harder. “It messes with your body clock,” he said. “When you’re on earlies your clock is set to nights, and vice versa.”
Diane is a care worker who works different shifts looking after adults with learning disabilities. She was diagnosed with a heart condition earlier this year that means she has an erratic heart rate—tiredness and stress make it worse.
“I’ve been asking my manager not to put me on any more than two night shifts,” she told Socialist Worker. “It affects me so much I don’t sleep well.
“But my manager keeps putting me on three or four. By the time I’ve done three I’m exhausted. By the time I’ve done four, I have to take extra tablets.”
Many shift workers say their lives revolve around their shifts. They spend much of the time too exhausted to think straight.
It’s a feeling that care worker Theresa from Doncaster knows well. She has worked for the same supported living service as Diane for the last 24 years.
The NHS used to provide the service. But now it’s in the hands of a privatised firm determined to squeeze every last drop from workers. Workers can do up to ten days without a break and sometimes work 24-hour shifts.
“You don’t sleep much on a 24-hour shift because you’ve got service users in the house and sometimes they get up quite a bit,” Theresa said.
“You end up thinking, ‘Have they gone back to bed yet?’ or, ‘Are they alright?’ You’re absolutely shattered when you get home.”
But for Theresa, like many shift workers, it’s hard to rest even when not at work. “It’s really hard to get home at 10 o’clock at night, unwind, then get up at 5.30am the next morning,” she said. “You end up clock watching. You don’t settle.”
Petrol tanker driver Tam is in a similar situation. He starts the night shift at 4pm and works until 3.15am the next morning.
“The biggest issue is your sleep patterns are way off,” he told Socialist Worker. “I work five shifts on, three off, followed by four on and four off. Getting a full night’s sleep is always an issue.”
Tam said that his diet suffers too. “You stop anywhere and just grab whatever you can,” he said. “You’re more prone to diabetes and heart disease—it shortens your life.
“And I think it does something to your immune system because you catch everything that’s going about. Shift work is a killer.”
Irregular work patterns shape workers’ lives. Many find it hard to spend quality time with friends and family—and can end up feeling isolated.
“It impacts on your family life,” said Diane. “I’ve had my grandson living with me and I should be playing with him, but when I’m so tired I’m grumpy with him,” she said.
“He doesn’t deserve it—he’s three years old.”
Theresa explained that it’s hard to organise socialising with friends that could help relieve stress.
“It’s very difficult to plan because it’s often very last minute,” she said. “You can’t do anything on a regular basis because you can’t guarantee that regular day off every week.
“So if you want to go to a fitness class, go to college or take on anything extra you can’t.
“And your shifts can get changed just a few days before by managers and then you can’t do what you wanted anyway.”
Piling pressure on people who do stressful and often dangerous work can have dire consequences.
“Companies like Eddie Stobart, Pollock Transport and all the other cheapskates want to get the maximum hours out of the truck and the driver,” said Tam.
“Drivers can be doing two 15-hour and up to three 13-hour shifts a week. And they’re sleeping in the trucks—they really do have a hard time.”
He added that it isn’t only drivers’ safety being put at risk but everyone they come into contact with. “These things are like massive weapons,” he said, referring to the trucks.
“If someone hits you with the full load of whatever it is they’ve got in the back, you’re toast.”
Diane and Theresa also worried that their shifts affect the quality of care they can give to the vulnerable people they look after.
“We do a job where we administer medicines,” said Diane. “It’s not right that people can be so tired. And they wonder why things can go wrong.”
Theresa added that cuts and pressure on resources were making things worse.
“You need two on shift in the afternoons and weekends because all four people are at home and you can take them out,” she said.
“But I’ve been left on my own in the afternoon quite a lot lately. Staff have had to go and cover other homes that are short of workers.
“If you’re on your own it means you can’t give the attention that you should to people. It also means they can’t go out.”
There are things that could be done to ease the burden on shift workers. Bosses could ensure that night shifts are no longer than 12 hours, including overtime.
The government could bring in laws to ensure workers have enough rest days in between shifts to recover.
Resources could be poured into key services so that more staff can be employed and night shift workers don’t have to face problems alone.
But since none of this will come without a fight, it’s time we started campaigning.
It’s called the ‘graveyard shift’ for a reason
People who work shift work often say they feel their “body clocks” are out of sync. This is because a “master clock” in our brains tells us to sleep when it is dark.
The master clock controls the production of a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin tells cells, including cancer cells, to go to sleep.
When there is less light, the master clock tells the brain to make more melatonin so you become drowsy.
But being in the light when our brain expects us to be sleeping in darkness suppresses the production of melatonin.
This is linked to many serious conditions.
- Working nights is strongly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in women and, to a lesser extent, prostate cancer in men. Decreased melatonin can push up the release of other hormones that affect the growth of tumours. Rotating shifts can increase the risk further.
- Working more than 11 hours a day increases the risk of heart disease by a staggering 67 percent according to a study from University College London.
- Shift work is linked to a 5 percent rise in the risk of stroke according to the British Medical Journal
- A large international study found that shift work is associated with a 9 percent increased risk of contracting type 2 diabetes
- Shift workers are more likely to be injured at work than people who don’t work shifts. The Institute for Work and Health found that up to 7 percent of workplace injuries can be attributed to shift work alone.
- Working nights contributes to peptic ulcers and disruption to sleep patterns can even change the way our genes behave.
- Shift workers are more likely to be depressed. This is partly due to social isolation but shift work could also affect brain chemistry. One study found that people who work nights have significantly lower levels of serotonin, which shapes mood, than those who work in the day.