Millions of people around the world work the graveyard shift. As many go to bed, they’re only just starting their working day - driving buses and taxis, caring for the sick and elderly and keeping international businesses running across different time zones.
In the UK, the number of people who work night shifts has increased by 151,000 since 2013 to reach more than 3 million - meaning night workers now account for one in nine (11.5%) employees.
Working nights affects far more than just sleep. It can affect social lives, relationships and perhaps most worrying, physical and mental health.
“While a traditional 9-5 is the structure by which most of us plan a working day, when we look at mental health in the workplace, we can’t ignore those who work outside these parameters – working night shifts,” says Dr Nick Taylor, CEO and co-founder of Unmind, the digital mental health platform for workplaces.
“Night shifts can take a huge toll on people both mentally and physically,” he explains. “Factors that can affect workers' working night shifts can be similar to the ones which affect those who work a more traditional day such as an non-inclusive work environment, toxic culture and stigma, but working throughout the night can have additional stressors such as how your body copes with the change in hours, and whether you are getting enough sleep.”
One of the key issues is that working at night involves having to fight your natural biological clock, which tells us we should be sleeping when it is dark outside. This can lead to the activation of our “fight or flight” mechanism - a physiological reaction in which hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline which are released into the bloodstream, contributing to stress and higher blood pressure.
Night shift work has been consistently associated with higher risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer, research shows. The World Health Organization has also classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen due to circadian disruption.
Working nights can also negatively affect your mental health too. If you work when your family and friends are asleep, it can make you feel isolated and lonely - particularly if you’re unable to socialise when they do.
Regular night shift work can also lead to chronic sleep deprivation, in which a person is never able to catch up on the sleep they need, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Research shows the relationship between insomnia and mental illness is bidirectional: about 50 percent of adults with insomnia have a mental health problem, while up to 90 percent of adults with depression experience sleep problems.
‘The solitude of the night’
When working nights, it can be hard to maintain a healthy diet as it is tempting to snack on heavy, fatty foods when you’re sleep deprived. Two hormones that help regulate hunger - ghrelin and leptin - are affected by sleep. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, while leptin decreases it. When the body is sleep-deprived, the level of ghrelin increases and ,the level of leptin drops, leading to an increase in hunger.
“Sleep is crucial for a healthy brain and a well-rested mind, night time shifts can affect an individual’s sleeping pattern if their sleep is of poor quality and ultimately, if there’s no consistency,” Taylor says.
“Although sleeping schedules are not a one-size-fits-all, as different individuals have a different circadian rhythm, the brain’s natural sleep-wake schedule, workers working night-shifts must be aware and informed of this to avoid cases of distress, restlessness, insomnia, feeling lethargic and poor mental health.”
For some people, the solitude and quiet of the night provides an ideal working environment. For many, though, night work is simply unavoidable. But being aware of the risks of working unsociable hours and mitigating these effects may go some way to protecting workers’ health.
“Whilst working night shifts doesn’t directly correlate to mental ill-health, it can affect employees if the right support and care from companies are not provided. Employers, therefore, must be able to support their workers at all times,” Taylor says.
“Whether it is pointing to the right tools, which can include digital mental health platforms that are available the whole time and offer bespoke training and signposting to help employees to continuously check, manage, track and improve their wellbeing – to hosting workshops, group activities, talks and one-on-one check-ins – there are several ways to ensure that the employee is being fully supported regardless of their working schedule.”
Finally, employers must stress the importance of being well-rested and creating a routine even if it is outside the ‘traditional’ working-day hours. And employers, now more than ever, are as accountable to support their employee’s mental wellbeing if they want to retain staff – and improve productivity.
“If employers aren’t able to provide the support with their staff needs or alter the working environment to ensure that the employee is healthy, happy and proactive, then they are likely to not only witness an increased loss of output, but also staff turnover,” Taylor says.