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Public Health: Night-time Working

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 6 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects of increased night-time working on public health; and what steps they intend to take to mitigate the negative effects of such working arrangements.

Health and safety at work is covered by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and corresponding regulations. The Working Time Regulations also impose requirements on employers regarding the number of hours worked and scheduled. The Government commissioned a review of sleep and health in 2020-21. While this did not directly address the effects of increased night-time working on health, it covered the impact of shift work, including night-time work. The findings will be published in summer 2022.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but many people will be surprised to learn that one in nine British workers now works at night. The medical evidence is that this is bad for health, whatever ameliorating steps are taken, with higher levels of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, pre-term births and premature births, as well as the impact on family and social life. Are the Government really considering monitoring directly the impacts of that huge increase in night-time working? Are they considering ways to ameliorate it? Are they considering ways to reduce what is clearly an undesirable economic trend?

I start by thanking the noble Baroness for the article that she sent a link to, which addressed some of the issues around her Question. The sleep review is looking at all these issues. As she rightly says, there are some links between fatigue and certain ailments and diseases. On some of them, the academics are still challenging each other, but that is all part of the review.

My Lords, a wide body of research has revealed that a number of health conditions are related to night-shift working. In the Netherlands, breast cancer is now recognised as an industrial disease for female night-shift workers. What policies are the Government undertaking to deal with this body of research that points to health for night-shift workers being unequal?

The Government commissioned a review of sleep and health from the former Public Health England for 2020-21. That reported just before Christmas and is now being considered by Ministers and other officials. We are hoping that the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will publish the findings in 2022. The review looked at a number of different things, including trends over time, optimal levels of sleep, links between mental and physical health, the economic impact and factors that hinder interventions to promote sleep. As the noble Lord rightly says, there is research out there about how workers can experience gastrointestinal disturbance and sleeping disorders and the possible association with breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. All that will come out in the review, I hope.

My Lords, does not the evidence about the poor conditions experienced by night workers underline the need for stronger employment rights for those in the so-called gig economy, in which many night workers work? When, therefore, will the Government finally publish their long-promised employment Bill?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. Indeed, the article the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, sent me talked about the impact on delivery drivers of not being allowed to rest or take shelter in restaurants and takeaways—being sent away and not having access to bathrooms and other facilities. The Government are looking at getting the balance right on this, in terms of flexibility, because some people value zero-hours contracts as long as they are not exclusive and they can work around them. We are looking at the various categories of workers. Because this is employment, I have been trying to get more answers; I apologise that I do not have all of them, but I will write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, night working can place a strain on people’s health through increased incidents of depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Can the Minister tell the House what work the Government are doing with unions and employers to reduce this link between night working and ill health, and what account they are taking of the TUC report which calls for greater attention to the pressure of night working on home life and relationships?

A number of noble Lords have made the very important point that there is clearly an impact on individuals of working at night, including fatigue, wider pressures and disruption to family life. The sleep review has looked at this and reported just before Christmas, after consulting a wide range of stakeholders. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will publish its report in the summer of 2022, I hope.

My Lords, given that so few people work night shifts from choice—some do but most do not—is it not ironic that, very often, these night-time jobs are quite low paid? Is it not a strange commentary on our society that, all too often, the people working in the least popular and more difficult and challenging jobs are also the lowest paid?

One of the issues of technology is how it has changed the nature of work. We have seen over time how older jobs have disappeared and new types of jobs and industries and different working practices have appeared. It is really important to make sure that workers, wherever and whatever times they work, get the best facilities and conditions possible. Sometimes that is done directly by unions, which work with employers and companies, and other times it is done directly, but it is important. One of the things we are looking at in the review is how deprivation of sleep affects many people, especially those who work at night.

My Lords, I totally accept that night work may affect the health of many night workers, but the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said that it is bad for the economy. Surely if night work increases, this should increase productivity.

It depends on why people are working at night—it really ranges. For example, when I was a student, I did a night shift from 10 pm to 8 am to pack the shelves for the next day. Sometimes drivers decide to work at night; some Uber or Bolt drivers tell me that they prefer night-time working because the roads are clearer then. There are different reasons—as the noble Lord indicated, sometimes it is the only job available to some people. It is really important to make sure both that customers and others are getting the services they want and that workers are treated decently and with dignity.

Does the Minister agree that if the start time of this House on Tuesdays and Wednesdays were brought forward to 11 am, it would save some elderly people from late-night work?

This is why I was so looking forward to coming back here today. The noble Lord makes an incredibly important point about the effects of night-time working on noble Lords. It is really important that we push the Government to understand the impact it is having on our health.

My Lords, many of those who work at night are nurses, doctors and care workers because their jobs demand and require it. Their situation has been exacerbated during the Covid pandemic. Can the Minister indicate what work the Government are doing to look into ways of ameliorating and mitigating their situation, so that they can continue to carry out their work unhindered and unencumbered, as they are exposed daily and nightly to the ravages of Covid and other diseases?

I think all your Lordships would agree on the incredible dedication of our medical and health and social care staff, before and particularly during the pandemic. We have to remember that a lot of these conditions are governed by the Health and Safety Executive guidance on managing health and safety risks, which includes guidance on shift work and fatigue, to make sure employees are treated with as much dignity and respect as possible.

My Lords, the Wilf Ward Family Trust is a charity that looks after severely disabled adults in north Yorkshire. Following the court case last year over pay for sleep-in shifts, it has had great difficulty in filling these roles and reaching an accommodation with the staff. Could my noble friend look into this—perhaps I could have a word with him afterwards—to see if that situation has been resolved to the satisfaction of both the adults in care and those providing that care?

As my noble friend will appreciate, I cannot comment on the details of a specific case, but I would welcome a conversation with my noble friend. The general issue has to be that we make sure that patients are treated as well as possible but that staff and employers are treated with as much as dignity as they deserve.

There are various surveys and debates, and it depends on whether you work purely at night-time or sometimes your shift might involve working at night-time. One estimate is that, at the moment, as many as one in nine workers works at night, but it depends on where you draw that definition.