The impacts of shift work and lack of sleep are well documented. Sleep (or lack thereof) affects every aspect of our physical and mental well-being; from learning and knowledge retention to regulating our mood, energy levels, hormones and fertility as well as fighting disease and slowing ageing.
‘Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams’ by Matthew Walker is just one book which highlights the importance of sleep, and the damage that a lack of sleep can have on an individual.
Not only are there a multitude of long-term health problems associated with prolonged shift work and disrupted sleep, but the short-term impacts can also be deadly.
The DVLA suggested that up to one fifth of accidents on motorways and other monotonous types of roads are caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel.
- Sleep-related car accidents are more likely to result in a fatality or serious injury.
- Peak times for car accidents are in the early hours of the morning and after lunch.
- Men under 30 have the highest risk of falling asleep at the wheel.
As Ecologists our job typically demands evening and early morning work which normally involves a certain amount of driving.
Traditionally, many employers within the ecology industry have had an appalling disregard for employee health and well-being. It is well documented how (particularly junior) members of staff have been expected to work ridiculously long, and frankly dangerous hours throughout the survey season. With tales of back-to-back dusk/dawn surveys for weeks on end and anecdotes of employer’s resistance to booking hotels for surveyors in remote locations encouraging driving in the middle of night or asking individuals to sleep in their cars.
Thankfully, attitudes seem to be changing within the sector and there has been a lot of discussion around surveyors’ health and wellbeing with regards to sleep and rest in the past few years.
After an extremely busy survey season last year the ecology team here at Wharton decided to look into how we can make our work safer for all staff, particularly those required to work late nights and early mornings.
Firstly, we decided to create and implement our own ‘Safe Working Charter’ which sets out our expectations for the survey season with limits on how many evening/ morning surveys someone can conduct in one week, how far staff can travel to and from site in an evening/ morning and demands that staff claim any toil accumulated as soon as possible after accruing it. Research shows that the sooner you can recoup lost sleep the better it is for your health overall.
Secondly, in anticipation of the new infra-red camera guidelines we have invested in seven brand new cameras to aid us this bat survey season.
Not only will this greatly improve the accuracy of our bat surveys it will also have a huge impact on our staff’s health and well-being.
By using the IR cameras, we anticipate that we will require fewer staff on site, meaning there will be more staff resting, and for the majority of bat surveys where cameras can be safely used, we anticipate we will largely eliminate the need for dawn surveys.
Dawn surveys are notoriously the ‘hardest’ surveys to wake up for. I know personally setting my alarm for 2am fills me with dread and I never sleep properly beforehand, for fear of missing my alarm (this has happened once by the way!).
There are only so many beautiful sunrises which can make up for the exhaustion and sickness you feel when that alarm goes off and generally, concentration and proficiency is drastically reduced following a dawn survey.
By implementing our self-imposed ‘Safe Working Charter’ and by utilising the infra-red cameras we hope to drastically reduce the amount of evening and (potentially eliminate the need for) dawn surveys, thus reducing the amount of lost sleep our staff will endure over the course of the survey season. This will hopefully ensure our staff are kept happier and healthier in the short and long term.
On World Sleep Day, we encourage ecologists and their employers to seriously consider whether their working practices are encouraging a safe working environment, by allowing sufficient recovery time between shift work. The days of accepting sleeping in cars, working back-to-back surveys, and being expected in the office immediately following surveys without rest are behind us; it is no longer acceptable to justify this poor practice as a ‘right of passage’.
It’s time to step up to the plate and make meaningful changes. Call out bad practice when you see it, refuse to accept the imposition of poor working conditions simply because you’re early in your career or conversely because “this is the way it’s always been”. As an industry we can, and must, do better.
Matthew Walker (2017) Why we sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Allen Lane; 1st edition