Our bodies have evolved so that we're awake by day and asleep at night. The brain’s ‘circadian clock’ monitors light levels and releases a chemical, melatonin, to prompt us to sleep when it’s dark; it releases other chemicals that keep us awake during the day.
This gives our bodies their 'circadian rhythm', which affects temperature, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure.
In the rail industry, many of us work shifts: outside regular 9 to 5 hours, especially nights, early starts and late finishes. In doing this, we're defying our natural rhythm and incurring the risk of health problems. We’re also depriving ourselves of sleep; shift workers get around two to three hours’ less sleep a night than other workers.
Research shows that shift work is associated with an increased risk of heart problems, digestive complaints, type two diabetes and some forms of cancer. Studies suggest that shift work is associated with increased mortality risk, i.e. we die younger!
A brief Marxist history of shift work.
Some forms of shift work can be traced back to Roman times. But shift work took off during the industrial revolution when capitalists invested a lot of money in factory machinery to increase productivity.
They didn't want their investments standing idle at night! As Marx puts it in Capital, time in which machinery 'lies fallow represents a useless advance for the capitalists'. Capitalists got round this problem by developing the shift system: different groups of workers to keep their machinery going by day and by night.
This history of shift work tells us something about how bosses view and use workers in the capitalist system. It shows us how the hours that our bosses buy from us for wages are just a means of keeping their machinery moving, creating value and producing profit. To the capitalists, our energy is like fuel to burn in the production process. We know that in sweatshops in Bangladesh today, just as in 19th Century Britain, bosses will make workers keep working until they die from exhaustion. That is the capitalists' view on the value and the purpose of human life.
This explains why, knowing the unhealthy and life-shortening effects of shift work, our bosses do very little to promote our health and well-being. They do the legal minimum, such as giving us 12 hours' rest between shifts. We have organised and fought for other improvements, such as the 35 hour week on many Train Operating Companies. But it's a constant battle: our right to a healthy life vs. their fight to keep the railway running on as few staff as possible.
We've got to keep the fight up!
Our trade union and socialist movement can challenge management’s domination and theft of our lives through shift work, starting with:
We could all have a lie in!