A report published last month by the Trades Union Congress revealed that the number of night workers had risen by 7 per cent, or 200,000 people, between 2007 and 2014. More than three million of us now regularly work nights. They are also growing as a proportion of the working population, from 11.7 per cent to 12.3 per cent.
Night shifters used to be mainly men in factories, but now the ageing population, as well as the rise of the technologies and systems mean that the people who keep the wheels of modern life turning are an increasingly varied bunch. Transport networks and the communications industries, call centres, care homes and security services now account for the bulk of the night shift.
"You've probably noticed that one of the groups least likely to work at night is managers," says Paul Sellers, a policy adviser at the TUC who helped produce the report. Less than 10 per cent of managers, directors or other senior officials report working nights, while at the other end of the scale, more than one in five of those working in care, leisure and the service industries, and people still in manufacturing, regularly work into the small hours.
Night shifts mess with the natural rhythms of our bodies and make it harder to do other healthy things, like eating well. Several studies link them with a greater vulnerability to heart disease, diabetes and several types of cancer. They also increase the incidence of divorce and worsening relationships with children. For many families, the pay-off is more money, but nothing requires employers to compensate night shifters who are, disproportionately, already in low-paid roles. In many industries where health and safety is less of an issue, employees can choose or agree to opt out of the 48-hour maximum – but not on night shifts. "But we know it happens," he adds. Night shifters are also entitled to regular health checks, but not all of them know it. As demand for nocturnal labour grows, abuse of the system can be extreme. Earlier this year, a disability charity in Scotland was criticised for paying some carers at its homes £2.50 an hour for "sleepover shifts". (They would only be paid above the minimum wage if they were called into action.)
A search through the blogs archives will show we have posted and re-posted on this issue.