Humans have evolved to be diurnal: asleep during the night and awake during the day. We should not expect man to work at night any more than live under water. Yet despite this, we seem to be intent on constructing a 24/7 society.
Technology like electric light and central heating makes us believe that we can overcome our biological rhythms, but this is not the case. People working nights have higher incidences of heart attacks, depression, gastro-intestinal problems and, in women, breast cancer – amongst other things – and there is even data to show that shift work shortens one’s life span. Night workers are also less productive and more prone to accidents both at work and whilst driving to and from work. Data suggest that sleepy drivers account for more injuries and deaths on the road then drunk drivers.
Worryingly, we seem to be constructing a society that is increasing the need for people to work shifts. Modern shift workers are employed in the service industries, in call centres and supermarkets. This seems to be a self-perpetuating problem, with more people working shifts in turn requiring more 24/7 facilities and even more people working shifts.
Yet sleep is a biological need and fundamental human right. Evolution has decreed that humans should be asleep at night and there is a high price to pay if we are not. Are the supposed benefits of 24/7 worth the consequences?
Dr. Neil Stanley
Dr Neil Stanley is an independent sleep expert who has been involved in research for over 35 years. After starting out at the R.A.F. Institute of Aviation Medicine, he moved on to the University of Surrey's Human Psychopharmacology Research Unit, where he was Director of Sleep Research. Today, he travels the world lecturing on various aspects of sleep to both healthcare professionals and the public at large.