A recent study by the University of Surrey in the UK has received much publicity recently about hazards to health of shift work. The headlines are of long-term health damage with links to type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and cancer. The study talks about Chrono-chaos when the rhythmic genes are thrown out of sync, explaining why jet lag affects us in the way it does.
Wading through the bold and eye-catching headlines the point being made seems to be that it is the change of sleep times that causes the problem. For most of us, jet lag may occur once or twice a year after holidays, and it is not clear from the study the impact of a few days disrupted sleep patterns would have on long term health taking into account the multitude of other factors in life. But what if your job requires constant changes to your sleep patterns, for example airline pilots and crew on long haul flights, or health workers who may change shifts on a fortnightly basis. What would the cumulative affect be over many years of work?
This new study may not be a game changer in the same way as in 1963 when the Minister of Labour published “Noise and the Worker”, the first major publication on the subject, which made employers aware of the dangers of excessive noise in the workplace. The study does, however, at the very least put the issue of the health concerns due to work patterns which disrupt an employee’s sleep pattern on the radar of employers.
Employers have a responsibility to ensure that they operate a safe system of work that will not unnecessarily endanger their employees. If an employer fails to properly assess the risks to the employee and do something about them, then they will be liable to pay compensation for any consequences.
Employers in industries with established shift work patterns or long haul travel should be on notice that now is the time to start to review your work practices, otherwise in the future an employee with health problems linked to shift-work will be saying to you, “You should have known back in 2014 that shift-work was bad for my health!”.