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Jennifer Yang for Metro Toronto
Thomas Edison was reputedly once fired from a job after spilling sulfuric acid during some late night work.
Perhaps graveyard shift fatigue got to him.
Statistics show that it’s far easier for mistakes to happen when working the night shift, which incidentally, was also brought into common existence by Edison’s most famous invention. With the light bulb, graveyard shifts became much more viable and one in four Canadians now work a job outside of regular work hours.
Unfortunately, the human body simply isn’t programmed for a nocturnal existence. “It’s not a normal function,” says Dr. Colin Shapiro, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “You don’t see dogs going out and doing shift work. The human is just another animal and we aren’t wired to do it.”
We follow what’s called “circadian rhythms,” which slow us down at night and prime our bodies for action during the day. To work an evening job is to fight your body’s natural processes and night toilers are therefore more vulnerable to health issues, experiencing greater instances of digestive, cardiovascular and mental health problems. Recent studies also link shift work with certain types of cancer.
With these added risks comes a greater need to stay healthy. “Shift workers have an extra onus to make sure that their sleep and health needs are cared for,” says Shapiro. “They have to do the best they can with their environment and situation.” This certainly isn’t easy, however, and anyone who’s pulled an all-nighter before knows how tempting it is to resort to junk food and caffeine.
Daylight sleep often also equals less sleep. “Darkness is stimulus for sleep,” explains psychologist Dr. Gerry Goldberg. “Light stimulates hormones in your brain that literally wake you up.”
For John Johansson, a security guard who’s worked rotational night shifts for the past 10 years, sleeping during the day still poses a challenge.
“I get two to six hours of sleep at most. I’m happy with four,” he says. “It’s starting to take its toll.”
Workers punching in after midnight also suffer socially and it’s been shown that shift workers have higher divorce rates. “You’re out of sync with other people,” Goldberg explains. “You’re winding down, they’re gearing up. You tend to be in a world of your own.”
Despite the pitfalls of evening work, however, night shifts also aren’t going anywhere so people should know what they’re getting into when taking one on. “Most people tend to not be realistic,” says Goldberg. “You have to plan ahead for it and know how you’re going to get your physical and social needs met.”