“For the past four decades, submarines have run on a watchbill known as sixes, which divides sailors’ time into six-hour chunks: six hours on watch, six for other duties and studies, six for personal time and sleep, then back on watch. The creation of an 18-hour day saw each sailor putting in six extra hours of watch time every 24-hour period. The problem is that his activities ceased to align with his biological rhythms,” writes Mary Roach in her book Grunt.
For many humans, shift work doesn’t align with our biological rhythms. Not all of us are sailors working sixes, but when our shift work doesn’t align with our biological rhythms, it can still throw us off, diminish our performance, and cause all kinds of problems for our daily lives. To me, it seems that shift work is a leftover of the industrial revolution, and something we are more or less stuck with, especially in a globalized world that seems to be increasingly moving toward an always on – 24 hour schedule.
Studies have shown that shift work among nurses is bad for performance and healthcare, but getting nurses to give up 12 hour, three/four workday shifts is difficult. Roach writes about the problems submariners have with shifts that don’t align with their circadian rhythm, and force them to work when their bodies need sleep. And all of us have probably felt the challenge of working in the mid afternoon when our minds can’t seem to concentrate on anything important. We force ourselves to push through times when we are not at our best because our shifts demand that we be on when our bodies would prefer us to be off.
But none of us really seem to want to do anything about changing our shifts. Some people who are creative and work for themselves, like my uncle or Tim Ferris with his Four Hour Workweek, can build a schedule that is flexible and aligns with their body and performance, but most of us are stuck working a schedule driven by our customers or our bosses. “As flawed as it is, we’d perfected it,” Commanding Officer Bohner is quoted by Roach as saying in the book. Making changes to nursing schedules, adjusting the expected daily working hours for everyone in the country, and adjusting our hours of operation is hard. It is easier to simply perfect working in imperfect conditions, even if that means putting up with bad performance.
I hope in the future we will be able to change this for many people. I hope we can find ways to get people into a work rhythm that better aligns with each individual’s circadian rhythm. The benefits would be important. Nursing and hospital safety could be better. Daily performance and happiness for workers could be better. This could translate into real improvements in people’s lives, and I think it is worth striving toward, even if it would be hard to shake up all the pieces and start over without the same shift work.