In a 24-hour society, when are people supposed to get a good night’s rest?
The automobile industry, the airline industry, the medical industry, the manufacturing industry, the safety industry – all of these and others are industries which cannot simply close at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. People must work around the clock to provide for the health, safety, and entertainment of others. Unfortunately, scientists are becoming more concerned about the effects of the night shift on American workers. While the night shift cannot be obliterated from working class America, those that do work on this schedule and the companies that employ them must be aware of the physical and psychological factors that come into play for the employee as well as the risks for the company itself.
Twenty to thirty million Americans have jobs that require them to work nontraditional schedules, which includes working during nighttime hours when other, traditional workers are asleep (Weiss, 1989). This shift has been around since society became industrialized because the need for 24 hour services in prisons and hospitals necessitated a “night” person.
However, these night workers have a much more difficult time than day workers in a variety of areas. Most of these problems can be traced back to the lack of sleep and light that these workers receive while they are awake.
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Scientists have been studying the body’s circadian rhythms in order to solve the puzzle of sleep deprivation and its effects.
Circadian rhythms are the body’s reaction to the alternation of light and dark and cues such as the timing of meals and sleep. This 24hour light-dark circadian cycle is derived from the Latin circa (“about”) and dies (“day”). Since prehistoric times, circadian rhythms have regulated the pattern of working by day and sleeping by night” (Learning to live with light-dark cycles, 1996). This genetic functioning is the basis for how individuals are genetically programmed to sleep and to wake.
According to scientists, the light from around a person travels through his eye to the hypothalamus in the brain – where the supposed “biological clock” is located. Then the impulse travels to the pineal gland at which point the production of melatonin (the hormone that allows people to sleep) is dramatically reduced. The rise and fall of melatonin in the body affects body temperature, perceived energy and enzyme and hormone production (Learning to live with light-dark cycles, 1996).
Basically, most of the body’s functions are related to this simple perception of light and dark. One researcher, Dr. Foster, studying this phenomenon, “found cells in the human eye that do nothing but detect bright sunlight and tell the brain to reset the sleep cycle accordingly” (Pepper, 2004). He found that these eye cells do not help produce vision but are only set to respond to daylight. It is important to note that even on a cloudy day, the daylight produced is 500 to 1,000 times brighter than any type of artificial light used in factories or offices. These artificial lights do not fool these cells in the eye.
Pepper (2004) cites Foster in saying “You need light of a long duration and high brightness to shift the [biological] clock. This explains why business travelers crossing time zones eventually adapt, but night-shift workers never do. They get a dose of natural light on their way to and from work, too strong for a factory’s dim lamps to counter.” These special eye cells feed directly to the brain and tell the brain’s ‘biological clock’ which is really about 20,000 cells with the scientific name of the suprachiasmatic nucleus, whether the person is receiving daylight or not. If he is, the cells send out the word to stay away; if he is not, the cells send out sleep signals (Pepper, 2004).
In addition to the sleepy or energized feeling that these cells can regulate, the human body is also affected in other ways. Scientific research has proved that people who work the third shift have a greater incidence of heart disease than those who work the first shift. They explain it by revealing that the less exposure to daylight a person has, the more the cholesterol is produced in the bloodstream, which will clog the person’s arteries (Fischette, 1992).
“Blood pressure and pulse rates are slowest during the night, but rise dramatically upon wakening. Physicians see more heart attack and stroke patients in the morning hours. Studies also are finding that circadian rhythms affect diabetes and certain cancers. For people with asthma, coughing and respiratory arrest are most common between midnight and 6:00 a.m.” (Pepper, 2004). Similarly, Glaxo, Inc. a research organization in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, notes other physiological effects that fall under control of these circadian rhythms:
- When parents remark that their children seem to grow overnight, they may not be far from the truth. During the hours of sleep, the human growth hormone is produced in greater abundance and is not inhibited from doing its job by activity hormones, like adrenaline, which are released during the day.
- Jet lag. When traveling to a different time zone, jet lag afflicts travelers and disrupts sleep and daytime functioning. The body’s circadian rhythm becomes “out of sync” with the rhythm of light and dark, taking up to several days to re-align itself to the new routine.
- Shift workers’ sleep disorder. Re-adjusting the body’s clock to different schedules on night or rotating shifts plays havoc with the natural circadian rhythm that responds to light and dark, making one’s temperature lowest at night and highest during the day. Although shift workers make up one-fourth of the nation’s workforce, they are twice as likely as nine-to-five individuals to report sleep disruption.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). For some people, the “winter blues” aren’t just a mood, but a chronic disorder that leads to depression, drowsiness, and carbohydrate cravings during the winter months. People suffering from SAD report longer periods of sleep, indicating that this disorder may be a circadian disturbance due to the shorter days of winter.
- Lung function. The body’s production of cortisol steroids, which control lung inflammation, drops at night and peaks in the morning. This means air flow in and out of the lungs is best at 4:00 p.m., often giving athletes a “leg up,” compared with other times of the day. Air flow drops to its lowest point at 4:00 a.m., explaining why people with asthma often have nocturnal problems. (Learning to live with light-dark cycles, 1996).
All of these negative affects will be exacerbated for those who must work during the dark, sleeping hours. Other problems can also arise from a lack of sleep due to working the third shift. A range of personality and behavioral problems may arise due attitudes related to shift work. These attitudes correlate to sleep habits and self-assessed feelings of vigor (Bohle & Tilley, 1998). Even if third shift workers are able to stay alert on shift, they may not be able to sleep during the day which exposes them to all kinds of additional problems due to sleep deprivation. “Studies show that one night’s loss of sleep results in a 30 percent drop in cognitive performance, rising to 60 percent after two nights” (Bohle & Tilley, 1998).
This means that the ability to think and make decisions quickly, as may be required by the majority of third shift workers – police officers, air traffic controllers and medical personnel – may be seriously diminished if they cannot sleep well during the day. Of course, as previously mentioned, the amount of daylight makes this very difficult (Bohle & Tilley, 1998).
The attitudes toward the night shift can also affect relationships and performance. Night shift was most frequently characterized as being tiring, having drowsy moments, being bad for family life and not starting too early in a study reported by Bohle & Tilley, 1998). Stickgold et al, 1999 reports also that night owls have slower reaction times, slower motor responses and slower levels of linguistic and associated processing. These could be very costly for some people.
Sadly, the vast majority of industrial accidents occur in the overnight hours when some workers may doze or suffer from lowered cognitive functioning. Such was the case with the accident at Three Mile Island, which began at 4 am. And the accident at Chernobyl, at 1:23 am ( the early hours when night-shift workers are prone to doze: the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island started at 4 a.m., Chernobyl at 1:23 a.m. (Bohle & Tilley, 1998). “We are asking 20 percent of our work force, including pilots and surgeons, to operate when they’re massively impaired,” says Dr. Russell Foster, a molecular neuroscientist at London’s Imperial College (Bohle & Tilley, 1998). Indeed, over 50% of shift workers admitted to falling asleep at least once while on the job (Weiss, 1989). .
Scientists are working on some medications and false lighting systems to help with the physiological and psychological problems associated with third shift work. Until then, workers and their company’s should take steps to prevent accidents and illnesses which may result.
Bohle, P & Tilley, AJ. (1998). Early experience of shif twork: Influences on attitudes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 71, 61-79.
Fischette, M. (1992). Working the heart-disease shift. Omni14 (11)
Pepper, T. (2004). Night Shift. Newsweek (Atlantic Edition) 144 (16).
Stickgold, R., Scott, L., Rittenhouse, C., & Hobson, J.A. (1999). Sleep-induced changes in associative memory. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 11(2)
Weiss, R. (1989). Safety gets short shrift on long night shift. Science News 135 (3)
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A 24-hour society. (2017, Mar 14). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-24-hour-society-essay