Sunday, May 23, 2004

A wake-up call

The night shift is one of the biggest sleep stealers. Women on night duty miss out not only on sleep but on family time as well, besides being vulnerable to health problems, writes Surabhi Khosla

WOMEN may have woken up to their rights, and equality, however relative, has opened up undreamt of avenues for work and advancement. But in the working world outside, not everything can be apportioned equally and every advantage has a flip side. Women may feel a sense of independence, achievement and even power in being able to do what men do, and do it better than the male of the species. But whether this is good for their health, is a question that keeps haunting not just the women but their families and society as well. The health of the working woman is a matter of growing concern worldwide not only for women and those who care about their condition but also for those employing them, if only to sustain their productivity for economic profit.

For some inexplicable reasons, women have always been deemed more sensitive and responsive to changes around them. Sleep is one of the most commonly affected factors in the life of a woman. A recent survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation of America shows that women who do night shifts don’t just miss out on family time but can expose themselves to medical problems related to lack of sleep. Says Dr Anil Safaya, sleep disorder specialist at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, "The physiological, emotional and biological needs of a woman are based on a rhythmic pattern of sleeping and awakening. While hormones and chemicals are produced when a person is awake, body organs ‘rest’ and are at their lowest during night." Safaya feels that a change in the working schedule affects all this balance and leads to sleep deprivation, disturbing the rhythm of the body and negatively affecting concentration, job performance, social and family interactions and general health.

Says Promilla Pillai, an airhostess with Indian Airlines, "Women like me who work at night sometimes tend to feel lethargic and listless during the day because of which tempers can flare. It is very important for the peace of the family that a woman should get her eight hours of sleep in a day." Married to former Delhi cricket captain Bhaskar Pillai, she has two children, and says that she sometimes feels she is missing out on the growing years of her kids. "Children can be extremely demanding and when they are around it’s not possible to sleep during the day. In any case, naps during the day can never make up for a full night’s sleep."

In fact, she has another problem. Being on the international route of Indian Airlines she has to travel across several time zones, four times a week. "That can take its toll on women, making the biological clock spin out of sync. Because of the time differences, the natural order of things gets reversed and that plays havoc with your mind. It takes a lot of time getting used to this erratic schedule of life," she says.

Vandana Soni, however, got used to her night shifts early in her career. A laproscopic surgeon at Delhi’s prestigious Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, she says, " Working in the nights leaves me little time for my daughter but my family members understand this is a part of my profession and their acceptance of my haphazard timings has made the difference."

On call for almost 36 hours at a stretch sometimes, Soni admits that there are days when she just wants to sleep. However, at times, her demanding job doesn’t allow her that luxury. " But day or night, I thoroughly enjoy my job." So does Pamela Jaiswal, a call centre employee in Gurgaon who has to do night shifts. " I love working in the night but my only problem is lack of sleep. Over time, I have developed insomnia and keep feeling lethargic throughout the day. But despite the sleep problems, I wouldn’t trade my job for anything else."

Neither would Aarti Kohli, a Senior Sub-Editor with a leading Delhi newspaper. However, she feels she’s missing out on her family due to her erratic routine. During night shift—that comes every alternate week —she has to be at the news desk from 7 pm to 1 am till the city edition is wrapped up. "I enjoy my job but I dislike night shifts. I have to leave my husband and two school-going children alone to fend for themselves. By the time I get home, everyone is asleep. And when I wake up around nine in the morning, my kids have gone to school and my husband to his office. My children sometimes get very upset with me."

But for women like Aarti, a job is a means of supplementing the income of the family. Yes, she says, " a decent job like mine fetches a salary of around Rs 15,000. And I keep telling my kids that it makes all the difference to our quality of life."

Money is an important factor and a job that involves night shifts does have its monetary benefits. Usually the pays are more and so are the perks. According to Yamini Chopra, who works night shifts from 7 pm. to 4 am at a leading five- star hotel in Delhi, "Just look at the brighter side of things. Night shifts have great advantages like free transportation from home to the hotel and back, which helps save a hefty part of the salary. Then there’s food at subsidised rates."

But she adds that working in the nights can be a pretty exhausting experience. "One of the disadvantages of working on night shifts is that you miss out on nightlife. There is no time for parties or for family gatherings in the evenings," she says ruefully and adds, "Sleep of course is one of the big casualties."

According to doctors, night shifts can disrupt the body rhythms. Says Safaya, " When the effects of sleep deprivation start coming, it can lead to abdominal cramps, pain in the legs especially the calves, backache, heartburn, general discomfort like hot flashes and palpitation. Also, anxiety, night sweat, daytime drowsiness, irritability, food cravings, emotional changes and depression are common among night workers."

Safaya says studies have shown specific problems related to women alone which include changes in the menstrual cycle, pregnancy-related problems and hormonal changes. According to him, there is a higher rate of miscarriages, premature births and low birth-weight babies in women working in the night.

However, there are remedies. Safaya feels that regular exercise is one of the best forms of recuperation. Also avoiding caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and chocolates helps along with a bit of yoga or meditation daily. Night workers should try and simulate night-like conditions and have a restful sleep for at least seven to eight hours once they are back from their job.

"People on night shift—and women in particular—should avoid too much intake of tea or coffee. And if it is sunlight by the time they return home, they must use heavy drapes to block the sunlight and have an undisturbed, restful sleep," he says. Doctors agree that if they can do that, then apart from their body clocks working differently most of the health problems can be avoided. In fact, they may end up saving a couple of more waking hours for themselves and their families.