“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”, or so the adage goes. If this is true, the growing legion of night workers in the UK would be not only ill, but foolish too.

Although the proverb is not strictly true, night work does place a strain on the body that, if not managed, can seriously affect work performance and quality of life.

The experiences of Chernobyl, the Selby rail crash and the Challenger explosion all reveal that human fatigue impairs both motor skills and decision-making abilities – and can lead to disaster.

The growth in night work has seen the number of people doing evening or night shifts rise to more than four million – 17 per cent of the workforce. This increase has been in new sectors such as call centres. But the traditional areas of nursing and the emergency services continue to employ large numbers in what has become a 24-hour society.

The human body was not designed to be awake at night and asleep during the day. Our natural body rhythm, the circadian rhythm, falls during the night. So how can shift workers make the adjustments to perform well in the job and still have a life outside work?

Most people would suggest that the solution lies in frequent cups of coffee. Although caffeine acts as a stimulant and is likely to keep you awake, it will also prevent you from going to sleep at the end of your shift, since the chemical remains in your blood. The solution is more complex and requires thought from both employees and employers.

The following simple steps can help to reduce the natural body-rhythm swings:

• Avoid big meals, because the body will respond to large intakes of calories by slowing down while it tries to digest the food.
• Don’t drink alcohol, as this is a depressor, calming the body for sleep.
• Avoid a completely quiet environment. Have a radio on or talk with colleagues during quiet periods.
• Exercise before the night shift begins. This will stimulate the flow of blood and increase alertness.
• Plan your shift so that you can perform stimulating tasks at the times when your body is at its lowest points (usually 1am to 5am).
• Use physical exercise during the shift – a short walk or, if you can, five minutes’ skipping.
• Where possible, take multiple mini-naps to reduce fatigue.

Joe Hanwell, a manager at a UK charity that runs a telephone advice line for gay men, says: “We have completely changed the way we staff our shifts and the advice and training we give our call handlers. We try to make sure there is work available to do between calls and we also encourage people to manage their sleep and exercise patterns around the shifts.”

An employer can take a number of steps when designing shifts. Consider the environment and organisation of work, recognise individual differences and provide advice to staff on coping strategies.

Where there is a shift rotation, design the shift around performance-enhancing factors. Favour a forward rotation to a backward rotation. Either rotate shifts quickly or offer permanent night shifts. Review start and finish times to reduce the impact on travel home and subsequent sleep.

Keep shift durations to a maximum of eight hours for monitoring tasks, or 12 hours for physical tasks. Design the working environment for night and evening shifts by managing light and temperature levels. When designing shift patterns consider issues such as the travel-to-work time of individuals, tasks involved during the shift and the provision of food and rest facilities.

Recognise individual differences in recruitment and the allocation of shifts. Although everyone is subject to the natural circadian rhythm, we each vary according to our biological make-up. These differences can include our preference for mornings or evenings, our fitness levels and our age (the ability to cope declines after the age of 40). Use sleep preference testing to identify these differences and take account of them.

As part of the training, provide advice that explains to employees how they may feel. Give people information about human body rhythms and the steps they can take to mitigate their effects not only while they are working but also when they are travelling home.

Evidence suggests that strategies such as employee testing can have dramatic affects, with substantial reductions in both absenteeism and staff turnover. A combination of shift design, which takes into account research evidence, and advice on coping strategies can reduce the number of errors made and lead to cost reductions.

If you have to work shifts, take steps to manage the effect on your body and your performance. Recognise that you are still likely to make more errors and work more slowly than you would at midday on a standard day shift.

Jonathan Passmore, IBM Business Consulting Service, passmore@uk.ibm.com

Shameem Quazi, Maygreen Consulting, s.quazi@maygreen.co.uk