We tend to think of shiftwork or round-the-clock work as a modern phenomenon associated with the industrial age. However, even in prehistoric times, someone needed to be awake to protect family and friends when they were most vulnerable, that is, at night when they were sleeping. Inherent in this task was the function of keeping the fires burning, both for protection as well as for warmth against the chill of the night.

Even as communities developed, there remained the need for protection through the night, but things really changed as new forms of transportation became available. This changed the timelines for communication and commerce and with industrialization and the immense investment in factories, it was inevitable that work hours would be extended to maximize productivity.

Ensuing technological advances and our ‘just-in-time’ and ‘on-demand’ expectations for goods and services have now made round-the-clock work a factor in almost all sectors of the economy. Even if you still work somewhat regular ‘day’ hours, you may be checking the markets, or checking the news or your emails in the evening and late into the night in preparation for the day ahead.

Current estimates suggest that approximately 25 – 30% of the workforce in Canada and the United States does some form of shiftwork. But humans were never designed to be night-functioning and being awake when we should be asleep has consequences for our health and well-being. Knowing this, organizations provide their shift-working employees with education about how to mitigate the effects of shiftwork and sleep better.

The best way to protect employees and reduce illness and injury associated with shiftwork would be to eliminate the need for shiftwork. This is what students involved in imagining what the workforce might look like in 2040 are suggesting. (DeGroote School of Business, Focus 2040 competition) They believe that health and well-being will become more important and organizations won’t be willing to pay for the negative consequences associated with shiftwork.

Is this a realistic proposition? As in prehistoric times, we will not be able to escape the need for round-the-clock work of health care providers, firefighters and police. Would we be willing to sacrifice other benefits of round-the-clock services? Would our health and well-being be worth it?

The International Labour Organization does already have regulations in place to limit extended hours and protect those most vulnerable like pregnant women. Another option is to only assign those who are most well-suited to dealing with the challenges of irregular sleeping and waking hours to night work and shiftwork. The Shiftwork Adaptability Profile (explained in the presentation ‘How to be a Successful Shiftworker’ www.alertatwork.com/presentations) can help to identify who is best able to tolerate which shift schedules.

Perhaps one option for reducing the need for humans to do shiftwork and round-the-clock work is to have more machines and robots which can work or stop work at the press of a button and aren’t subject to the physiological rhythms which dictate sleep and waking times.

How would you reduce the need for shiftwork in non-essential work sectors?