Night shifts have been linked with higher rates of diabetes, heart attacks and cancer – and now scientists say they are responsible for disrupting our very genetic makeup.
For the 4 million or so of us who work shifts, is there no respite from the damage we’re causing to our health?
Physically, it would appear not. Scientists at the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey followed 22 people whose sleep-wake cycle was delayed by four hours each day until their sleep patterns were 12 hours out of sync with an average day.
This, they said, caused “profound disruption” to the circadian (24-hour) rhythm of genes, many of which are responsible for the body’s natural abilities to maintain and repair itself.
“If we put people through these protocols we are influencing very basic processes deep down, which could explain why shift work has been implicated in increasing the risk of a range of health problems,” said the centre’s Professor Derk-Jan Dijk.
Of the 4 million working shifts, figures from 2011 suggest that there were 338,000 people working only night shifts, and about 559,000 on a combination of day and night shifts. Night shifts, according to the Labour Force Survey which the figures are taken from, are during the hours of 6pm and 6am. These are the ones which, for years on end, are the most damaging, scientists say.
It’s not great to know you could be causing yourself a degree of harm, physically and emotionally, by something that is, more often than not, out of your control.
So, to counter the downsides of our wonky sleeping habits, and the grief of kissing goodbye to our social lives, Channel 4 News has come up with a few advantages to the vampiric subworld of the night shift.
Drivers can zip to and from work in a fraction of the time it takes to travel during the morning rush hour. Cities and towns during the witching hour have that slightly surreal, dreamlike quality, and traffic lights seem to nearly always be green. Cyclists at least have fewer cars to have to weave through.
Londoners escape the congestion charge, and for most, it’s less money spent on fuel as there’s less, if any, time spent sitting in traffic jams.
Many jobs for night shifters offer better pay than for day shifters, or fewer hours for the same pay.
The NHS is one employer which pays more for night shift workers.
It isn’t great for the social life, but that too has its advantages – the pounds (sterling) start to pile up when that’s taken out of the equation.
If the shifts are timed right, it can mean being home when the children need to get off to school, and then being around when they finish at 3.30pm.
It also helps if one of them has to come home sick from school. Of course, the night shifter’s sleep will be disrupted for a day, but broken sleep is a hazard of the job for most parents anyway.
Like going to the doctor, the dentist, the optician, the post office for that letter that weighs more than 100g, picking up deliveries and so on.
Also, other public places, such as swimming pools, parks, museums and trains, tend to be emptier at off-peak times.
Travel and gym memberships are generally cheaper at off-peak times, too.
Hardened photographers know what it’s like to have to get up during the middle of the night to catch the right light as dawn breaks.
Night shift workers won’t need to do that as they’re either up working anyway, or even better, on their way home.
An unusual light can transform a streetscape into a different place altogether, and it’s not a place that many day workers will know at certain times of the year.
A spectacular sunrise is rarely anything but a memorable experience.
Most workplaces only employ skeleton staff over night, unless you happen to work in a nightclub.
The boss is normally tucked up in bed, and so are their acolytes.
Which means that often, you’re pretty much in charge. And if you do have a boss, or even if you are the boss that works overnight, you develop a kind of camaraderie with your colleagues from knowing you’re all working against the odds.
At some workplaces, it’s an opportunity to show you can work independently without being spoonfed.
And you’re more likely to avoid dull meetings and depressing office politics.