Working nights is a common part of the modern business world, with at least 12 percent of the British workforce in such roles. Within the last five years, there’s been a 150,000 increase, the Trades Union Congress confirms. ‘Night’ is more or less the period between 11.00 pm and 6.00 am. You can agree with your employer to change the night time period. If you do, then it must be at least seven hours long and include the time between midnight to 5.00 am.

In the UK, employees have two sets of rights: their contractual rights as set out in their contract of employment and their statutory rights. Any request by an employer to change shift patterns will in part depend on whether an employee’s contract allows the change.

Note that if the contract set out the minimum number of hours that the employee is required to work only, as is often the case in shift workers’ contracts, generally employers can change shift patterns, as long as the employee is still being asked to work their contracted number of hours.

Additionally, shift workers, like other employees, are protected by statutory rights. Coupled with other things, these give employees the right to request a change to their working arrangements, including any shift patterns, to allow them to work in a way that better suits their lifestyle.

Since 2014, this right is not limited just to those who have childcare and other carer responsibilities, but applies to all employees. Have it in mind that it is a right to request flexible working, not to work flexibly, but only one request can be made in a 12 – month period, so it may not be appropriate if the change an employee needs is temporary only.

Note that employers in the UK are mandated by law to handle a request in a reasonable manner, which includes considering the request properly and refusing it only for certain business reasons. Ideally, even if the employer can satisfy one of those business reasons and properly refuse a request to change shift patterns or to not work new shift patterns, working mothers are protected by anti-discrimination legislation.

In the United Kingdom, there are certain regulations that apply to employees who work at night. These apply to all employees be they permanent members of staff or casual workers. The regulations define night time as the period between 23.00 and 06.00 although this agreement can be slightly varied between employers and workers. A ‘night worker’ is classed as someone who works for at least 3 hours during this period.

Generally, night workers should not work more than 8 hours in any 24 hour period, averaged over 17 weeks. They cannot opt-out of from this limit unless it is allowed for by a collective workforce agreement, although in some cases you can average night work over a 26 week period. These night workers must be offered a free health assessment before they begin night work duties and on a regular basis after that.

For some workers – those working with Hazards or under mental or physical strain – there can be no averaging at all – the 8 hour limit must be strictly adhered to. In addition, workers under 18 are not permitted to work nights, although there are quite a number of exceptions to this rule and you can find out more from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

It is an employer’s duty to comply with the night work regulations. They should keep records to ensure workers do not exceed their night working limit along with records of their employees’ health assessments for 2 years or, if they didn’t take up that offer, you should record the date the offer was made.

What to Do as an Employee When You are Forced to Work Night Shift Against your Will

In many industries, the night shift is a necessary part of the regular workday. Businesses operate through the night to produce as much volume as possible and meet the demands of the market. However, the idea that an employer may force someone to work nights is indeed worrying.

Note that employers who use this approach upset staff and damage their companies’ reputations. In addition, it’s clear from the question that this employee cannot work nights. After all, on some occasions there’ll be no one at home to look after a child. If you are this employee, below are few options to try;

  1. Consult your contract of employment

First and foremost, note that an employer cannot force someone to change shift patterns. This is unreasonable. There’s a potential problem in the way this situation may unfold, however. Therefore, the ideal thing to do first is to check the contract you signed when you first got employed. This contract will state the hours you are expected to work and the actions to take when you are not satisfied with your employer’s decisions.

Howbeit, if an employer tries to force a member of staff to work nights, and the member of staff refuses, such a confrontation is bad for everyone involved. The member of staff may win in the short-term; but in the medium to long-term, the employer may prove difficult over other issues such as granting time off.

  1. Ensure adequate communication

Another very good way to avoid harmful confrontation is for both sides to talk to each other in a sensible way. More than likely, the employee will have to make the first move. Note that the ideal course of action is to speak to the appropriate manager. Explain why a change to the night shift is impractical. Most managers will respond positively. If the manager isn’t sympathetic, speak to the HR section. Again, explain the situation and ask to stay on the day shift.

  1. Request for flexible working

If the HR section takes the manager’s side or your company doesn’t have an HR professional, and then discuss flexible working. Have it in mind that employees in the UK have a legal right to ask for flexible working. To make such a request within the law, an employee mustn’t be an Agency Worker; must have worked for the company for 26 weeks or more; and mustn’t have made a similar request in the past year. Employees must also give a reason for the request. The three eligible reasons are:

  • Caring for a child aged 16 or under
  • Caring for a disabled child under 18 who is receiving disability living allowance (DLA)
  • Caring for certain adults

Howbeit, note that the employee is not asking to change hours as part of a flexible working arrangement but to stay on the day shift. Since the request is not to change, the employer may seize on this and still try to force the employee to work nights. If so, the employee needs to point out that once on the night shift, he or she will demand the legal right to Flexible Working. This will lead to a return to the day shift in order to care for the child.

How to Adapt to Working at Night

Indeed the human’s body clock was designed to be awake during daylight hours and to sleep at night and many night workers have experienced difficulty in adapting to the changes in working at night and sleeping during the day. There are no explicit solutions to this problem but some good tips include:

  1. Adapt to your new time frame as quickly as possible by timing meals and other activities to match the new ‘day’.
  2. Although not always possible, reports have shown that a short nap in the middle of a night shift can help maintain or improve performance later on in the shift. Perhaps, you could consider this during your longest rest break within your shift.
  3. One of the most common complaints about adjusting to night shift work is the difficulty some people find in sleeping during the day. It is just as important to try and create the same relaxing environment as you would normally do if you were sleeping at night. Your room should be well ventilated and not too hot. It should be as quiet as it would be at night so if you have a family, they should consider your needs sympathetically. If need be, you should install black-out window blinds so that your bedroom is as dark as possible and consider ear plugs and sleeping masks for your eyes, such as those you might get offered on a plane.
  4. Exercise can often sort out body rhythms. You could try starting your new ‘day’ with a brisk jog or by cycling. This may mean doing your exercise at 10 o’clock at night when most people are start thinking about getting ready to go to bed but it has proven to have been beneficial for many night shift workers.
  5. When eating on the night shift, choose smaller portions rather than heavier meals which can make you feel tired and sluggish and can sometimes cause heartburn and try to avoid late night caffeine as this can have an adverse effect when you get home in the morning and are trying to get to sleep.

Conclusion

On a practical level, there is often a solution that works for both employer and employee if the issue is discussed informally. If you are the employer, consider why you need to change the shift patterns and be able to justify that decision with evidence.

As a shift worker, speak to your manager: set out your issues and concerns, including whether the change you need is only temporary; emphasize the benefits to your employer and consider any problems that your manager may have beforehand.

Ajaero Tony Martins