We used to follow the cycles of day and night…
…but the conquering of fire, and in particular electric lighting, enabled us to stay active at night. This is at first sight a gift from heaven, as we see in rural Africa, where education rates rise in direct relation to the availability of artifical lighting (yes, a water source close by does help too). But looking at the more electrified, developed world, we see that the universal availability of lighting has eradicated one of the most natural states of being: darkness. There is virtually no populated outdoor place, where natural darkness can be observed. Street lanterns, private lighting or the reflections of a nearby town are visible.
This situation has triggered discussions about the ‘right to darkness’, but those have never attracted a great deal of attention. The merrier I was when I found a piece from a Philips lighting professional reflecting on the need of darkness to set the body clock (as well as proper contrast within a light display).
She, like others, correctly brings biology to the table, as the effect of light and dark on the body receives little attention in the world of lighting. The dangers of unnatural long exposure to light are especially linked to deregulated hormone production, e.g. melatonin.
So, we have introduced almost constant artificial light into our lives without installing a personal off-switch. The effects on our working live have been severe and the 24-hour economy is a fact in many places. The effects on our biology and health are still subject of research, although shift-work has already been identified as a serious health threat by IARC: “Shiftwork that involves circadian disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans.”
What would be the implications of thinking in the natural day and night cycle, say for a company:
Working in night shifts is unnatural for humans, meaning that humans should be awake only during day time. Having a look at ecosystems however, we see that shift work is no problem at all in a diversified organisation. Nocturnal animals, chemical processes, bacteria – they all operate at night. Translating that into organisations, we would need to schedule non-human processes to be executed preferably at night and reserve daytime for all human processes. The current literature suggests at least 2 advantages.
Advantage 1: Human health would be positively affected by observing day and night cycles (the circadian rhythm). Hormone production would be able to operate at the optimum of evolutionary calibration, reducing health risks and related costs to society.
Advantage 2: Family and social structures would benefit. (Night) Shift work disrupts family structures. As humans have evolved to become a social species with a quality approach to reproduction, a shared day and night structure for the whole family results in higher quality of family life and upbringing of children. This might also have positive effects on children’s performance in education as well as a reduced divorce rates. Those advantages in turn result in positive effects on a wide range of social issues. [There is little literature on the social effects of shift-work. If you have sources, please share here!]
However, there are several conflicts between the current 24/7 economy and the observance of a natural day and night cycle.
Conflict 1: The IT-revolution has enabled ever faster computations, making it unnecessary to take a whole night for most computer jobs. This means, that a day and night cycle would equal a slow down of productivity.
Conflict 2: Most machines still need human operators. At the moment, robotics and automation appear not reliable enough to be operated without human operators or controllers. Furthermore, most automated processes in industries are semi-automated and need human handling at either end of the process.
Conflict 3: Time is money. The prevailing priority of many businesses is to quicken processes where ever possible, allowing for ever faster delivery of goods and services. This addiction to haste is a fundamental barrier to making time available to harvest the advantages of day and night cycles whenever those go together with loss of time.
The implications of this state of knowledge are simple and complex at the same time.
Simple conclusion: It is an individual, ethical and conscious choice to use or do shift-work to increase the delivery time of a given product or service. As long as the product or service is adding less value to society than the advantages of observation of day and night cycles, structural shift-work should be ruled out.
Complex conclusion: The system of a global, competitive economy dictates that quicker or continuous delivery is a vital advantage to a company and hence necessary for survival. People are willing to work in night shifts despite the health and social effects. Laws and regulations allow it. There are effective ways to counter the health impact of shift-work to a certain extent. Using less night work is not an option that society will accept, given that society has grown used to continuous availability and fast delivery of goods and services. Costs of change would result in societal advantages, but at the expense of private profits, making a change unfair towards capital owners. Evidently, humans want night shift work and individuals are willing to suffer any negative effects.
So, it is not a matter of black and white, not about ethics versus economics. It is the observation that we diverge from the natural cycle of day and night, accepting to function sub-optimally in terms of evolutionary processes.