THE BLOG

Shift Terrors - The Health Dangers of Working Unsociable Hours

30/07/2015 13:54 BST | Updated 28/07/2016 10:59 BST

When I first heard the Commodores 'classic' Night Shift in the 1980s, it presented a kind of dreamy mystery about working in the darkest hours. It almost seemed appealing in my youth. Years later I would discover that the dreamy mystery I imagined was in fact wondering when I will ever get back to my dreams and back into bed. I work overnight regularly across various outlets. I actually quite like them. I prefer the idea of staying up, than that fear of the alarm call at 4am or earlier that I had to endure every weekday when doing early news bulletins at the likes of Star FM and Fox FM. For all of us that work these strange hours in radio, a regular topic of conversation is about sleep or lack there of.

This week on Radio 4, Today's Sarah Montague presented a half hour exploration of the health risks of working these unsociable hours. Getting up to present the BBC's flagship radio news programme at 0330 was her inspiration. These types of programmes can often end up self indulgent but this was a fascinating and at times startling insight into what working overnight can do to our bodies.

The list of diseases or conditions was fired at us. Diabetes, heart disease and cancer to name just three. Pretty gloomy stuff. More interesting was how the body clock controls our organs and the fact that sleep deprivation makes us produce more Ghrelin, the hormone that makes us hungry. That certainly explains why you suddenly feel the urge for a meal at 1 or 2am when normally you'd be asleep.

Fascinating too was the revelation that the ability to think at 4am is the same as if we were drunk. Now I know why my bulletins get a little shaky at that time! (Although I have always found the 2am bulletin to be the one where words become foggy and names like Wawrinka start looking like a Countdown conundrum).

Not everything could be explored on this programme of course, but it would have been interesting to hear from the experts about how waking the body up in the early hours impacts your health. Here the body clock must get really confused. Personally, I find the hardest turnaround of shifts can be finishing an overnight and then the next day doing an 0500 start. You are driving to work 24 hours after you were driving home. I describe the subsequent feeling as like jet lag. If you think about it, the body is going through the same time shifts.

It is clearly also a benefit to me that I work self-employed, and can choose when to do these different shifts, but it can be quite hard adapting to the different hours. It is also beneficial that I love what I do. My job is not strenuous in that sense as well, so I feel for those that work longer and harder than I do. But it appeared that the people interviewed on the Radio 4 programme also found being positive helped.

For those of us that have spent twenty years or more working strange hours, some of the health warnings in Sarah's programme will have come as no surprise. The more direct risks too. A colleague returning from an overnight shift once crashed her car into a tree after she fell asleep and was lucky to survive. I too have felt myself nodding off whilst driving home from a shift. Here the responsibility of employers is an interesting and difficult subject. In media, the kind of health and safety concerns raised on this programme are generally ignored. Getting lunch or rest breaks introduced is pretty impossible. Imagine trying to tell them you can't do more than three or four overnights in a row, or restrict them on the amount of early shifts you do?

No answers were presented on how to counter the health impact of working overnights or earlies, but there was some comfort in knowing that after five years, the impact on your brain can be reversed if you return to working 9 to 5. Shame there aren't many of those shifts in the media!