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Health woes of a 24 hour economy

One of the arching goals of Vision 2030 is to make Kenya economically competitive on a global scale. Riding on this, the National Economic and Social Council envisioned a 24 hour economy, with a well-articulated process of implementation.

Twenty-four hour economies aim to increase efficiency and productivity, and satisfy consumer demands. There is increased flexibility in working hours.Machinery and spaces are not left idle at night and weekends. And more workers are usually needed to fill in the 24 hour shifts, potentially increasing employment opportunities.

But observations of adverse health effects of 24/7 economies have been well documented. Famously, Churches in the Netherlands opposed the 24/7 economy way back in 1998, citing damages in well-being of society. And the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology published a post note in 2005 about the ‘24 hour society’, detailing health and safety issues.

Research has linked night shifts and long working hours with adverse health and social impacts. Working at night affects biological rhythms and contributes to sleep deprivation. Consistently getting less than 7 hours of sleep is associated with slower reaction times, more accidents, reduced productivity and impaired psychological and cognitive function. This is in addition to social isolation and family life disruption. Psychological problems may ensue, sometimes blamed on what others have termedas ‘slaves of economic motives’.

Other health effects include increased rates of cardiovascular diseases, obesity and gastro-intestinal problems. Reproductive health problems have also been observed, with increased rates of spontaneous abortions, poor fetal growth and low birth weight. Such ill health may be indirectly related to smoking, poor diet and lack of exercises that are commonplace with 24 hour working patterns.There is a cumulative higher risk of death, blamed on multiple occupational factors.

We must therefore find a balance between health and a 24 hour economy. Working time directives (WTDs) can be used to limit the total working hours per week and per individual. This allows adequate rest times, positively impacts on productivity and maintains a healthy work-force. Flexible working times that allow swapping shifts and working remotely have their place as well. Use of technology to monitor fatigued humans with visual and sensual alerts saves lives. And we must manage our infrastructure to accommodate 24/7 activities. This should include round the clock safe public transport, food services, emergency services and work-place protection.

Novel strategies to re-program biological rhythms have been tried, but the human body has a tendency to default back to its natural biological clock.Sleep hygiene and short naps all help out with adjusting to working odd-shifts. Stimulants and potentially addicting substances that keep workers awake should be avoided. A drug that can sustain alertness for 88 continuous hours is already available, but must be used with caution. Achieving a 24 hour economy should not be at the expense of Kenyans’ health, we don’t want to turn into zombies just yet!

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