From the TUC

In the shadows: understanding the needs of night workers

07 Dec 2009, by in Working Life

Today the Young Foundation publishes a major new study looking at people’s needs in Britain. Sinking and swimming: understanding Britain’s unmet needs is based on new analysis of statistical data, case studies, surveys and hundreds of conversations with people across the country. It shows where the most acute needs are and how they inter-relate.  It looks at why some people can cope with shocks and setbacks and others can’t.  And it draws out the implications for policy, philanthropy and public action.

The study looked at the material needs that are still going unmet (jobs, homes, wealth etc.) and the emerging and increasingly significant psychosocial needs (happiness, self esteem, resilience etc.) experienced by many around the country. In addition to the groups who are particularly affected by pressing need and – in many cases – multiple need, we also focused on a relatively under-researched group, whose needs most people are generally unaware of. We decided to look at needs at night.

This is an area on which there was little data but where there might be significant need. We chose to do this by following a range of different night workers as they worked their shifts, going where they went, seeing what they saw and asking questions as we went along. This approach allowed us not only to look at those needs that are more acute at night, but also at the needs of the night workers themselves.

The majority of our service infrastructure is designed for use in the daytime. However, particular problems (isolation, vulnerability, violence) appear more common or regularly surface at night. Those services that do operate at night are ill equipped to adequately meet these needs, resulting in a number of different people falling between the gaps or being marginalised.

When it comes to the needs of those working at night, it is clear that night shift work is an important part of the modern economy. It is likely to continue to grow in the foreseeable future – especially within the service sector. However, little attention has been paid to those working at night in terms of who they are and whether their needs differ from the daytime workforce. We found that those who work at night have significant unmet needs that go unnoticed and unreported.

A growing volume of medical research is highlighting the serious health implications of working night shifts and, as our research shows, many of the medical dangers are being amplified by the unhealthy lifestyle choices being made by – or forced upon – the night workers. There is a pressing need for raising awareness of the risks of night working, among workers and those responsible for managing their shift patterns and working environments. The trade unions and Health and Safety Executive can play a significant role in this education, pressuring for new legislation and enforcing existing regulations. More needs to be done.

With the majority of night workers in the UK employed in the public sector, the government needs to take notice of the risks these people are being exposed to. In 2009, after studying research by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Danish government began paying compensation payments to women in professions such as nursing who developed breast cancer after working regular night shifts. As one commentator put it, night working has the potential to be the “next asbestos”, raising the possibilities of widespread legal action and large compensation payouts.

GUEST POST: Will Norman is the Principle Research Associate at the Young Foundation and one of the authors of the Sinking and Swimming report. He is leading the Young Foundation’s on-going research into night working in the UK. Will specialises in ethnographic research and has a PhD in anthropology from the London School of Economics (LSE). Before joining the Young Foundation, Will was the Managing Director at ESRO Ltd, an ethnographic consultancy firm he co-founded.

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