The Amsterdam Food Centre business park is abandoned. It’s half past three in the morning when Rob ten Brink (65) from Mijdrecht enters the improvised container canteen of meat specialist Chateaubriand. The butcher is one of the 1.3 million Dutch people who work nights. He makes coffee and changes into his white overalls.
“I leave for work in the dark and it’s often dark when I go home. I see the sun at the weekend,” he says laconically. Ten Brink has worked in the meat industry since he was 17. “I was already doing the job. Production line, slaughter line, lugging around carcasses weighing more than 100 kilos. Nowadays we lift a maximum of 25 kilos, but I can tell you that this is heavy work.”
Chateaubriand is doing well. The company is known for supplying quality meat throughout the Netherlands. The beef and veal come from the Scottish Highlands. To keep up with increasing demand, Ten Brink and his colleagues work at night. Yesterday, he left the park at a quarter past five in the afternoon. “Then you go home and spend some time with the wife. At eight o’clock you’re back in bed. You don’t have a social life. I used to enjoy watching football on the couch. Now I nod off in front of the TV.” The coffee cup is empty. Ten Brink picks up up his white butcher’s cap and opens the roller door to the cutting room. White fluorescent tubes illuminate a space with chopping boards and cutting machines. The temperature is seven degrees. For the newly arrived Peter Oldejans (64), that’s no problem. Under his overall he has a T-shirt on; his chest is partly bare. “They all walk around like bears here,” he says to Ten Brink, who’s wrapped up in a sweater.
Together, the pair will prepare everything for the first orders. The men sharpen knives and carry in plastic bins. In the adjacent cold room, it’s zero degrees. Large lumps of meat are hanging on hooks. The rest of the meat is stacked in plastic containers. This also applies to the freezer room, where it’s minus 17. Sometimes, one of them spends five minutes moving containers in this room. The men don’t seem to suffer from the cold. It’s warmer in the office of Dirk Huisman (56), Chateaubriand’s owner. Every day at half past two, he’s on site to process the orders for restaurants.
“Do you mind if I carry on working while we talk?” he asks, tapping his keyboard. The printer spits out A4 sheets with orders and receipts. These are for the men in the cutting room. “There’s got to be one to begin with, otherwise the boys can’t get started.” He points to all the emails with orders on his computer screen. His WhatsApp and SMS inbox are full, too. “Carrier pigeon is the only way stuff doesn’t come in!” says Huisman, clicking on his list of sent e-mails. “I send a polite reply for every order. It’s still a pretty impersonal business though,” he adds. Like his employees, Oldejans and Ten Brink, he has no social life after working hours. “It’s not that I have time to watch All You Need Is Love [Dutch TV show – ed] and that kind of nonsense with my wife on the couch. Yesterday I got home at six-thirty in the evening. The alarm goes off four hours later.”
Huisman claims to have no physical complaints caused by his work. Yet his left foot is in plaster. He twisted his ankle when unloading a truck, “then a cow carcass landed on top of me.” Oldejans and Ten Brink also have work injuries. The former limps, the other has ruptured his groin three times. He also tore a muscle in his left upper arm. He doesn’t want an operation: “You never know if it’ll make it worse.”
We live in a 24-hour economy.
Consumers wants their purchases as fast as possible and so workers’ sleep must suffer. Think of all the distribution centres and warehouses in the Netherlands where the lights are on all night. Some 1.3 million people work nights in the Netherlands, including nocturnal workers such as nurses and the men and women in blue.
Night work is unhealthy. That was the conclusion of the Health Council of the Netherlands, which issued a report on night workers at the end of 2017. It increases the risk of sleep problems, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These results are relevant, the Health Council argues, because 15 per cent of the workforce works at night.
Research into the risks of night work is still rudimentary worldwide. Nevertheless, there are studies abroad that confirm the results of the Health Council. A meta-analysis from 2017 looked at 61 studies into cancer. Together, the research sample consisted of 3.9 million female night workers. In the long term they run a greater risk of breast, skin and lung cancer. In 2009, 38 women with breast cancer received compensation from the Danish government amounting to between €
4500 and €130,000. They had worked at least one night per working week over 20 years of employment.
There are also mental health risks. For example, preliminary studies show that night work increases the risk of depression. Through the disruption to their rhythm, night workers with bipolar disorder experience more episodes. Missing activities during the day can also lead to social isolation.
“It’s all in the mind,” says Oldejans, carefully cutting away the bones of a chicken. “We had one that couldn’t handle it anymore. He stopped.” So how do they manage to keep working so often and so long into the night, morning and afternoon? “Very simple, it’s the love of the job. Just like a carpenter making a table, as a butcher you’re making a product out of a raw material.” A little later, he has neatly wrapped the boneless chicken with a piece of string: a small work of art. “If I had a job that didn’t suit me and I was working these hours, I’d go crazy too.”
It’s five o’clock. In an hour the driver will pick up the first shipment of orders. Much still needs to be done. Huisman has a white overall on, too. He’s walking back and forth on his plaster-cast foot. Meanwhile, new workers have joined us and there are six men cutting, wrapping and packing. “I’d prefer to have more colleagues,” says Ten Brink, quickly chopping a large piece of beef into pieces. “But nobody wants to start that early.” Baas Huisman agrees: “A job like this is a breach of your social life.”
Like any living organism, the human body has a circadian rhythm: an internal biological clock that roughly starts up again every 24 hours. Many internal processes take place within this time frame. Think of your eating pattern, alternations in alertness, or the sleep-wake rhythm. This is co-regulated by melatonin, also known as the ‘sleep hormone’. “The production of melatonin is high at night and low during the day,” says Mariëlle Aarts (49) in her office at Eindhoven University of Technology. She is a structural engineer specializing in light. “The ‘stress hormone’ cortisol is the opposite. In the morning, you need it to activate you. In this way every organ, every substance and every cell in our body has a circadian rhythm. All these processes run into each other, engage with each other. By working at night, you disturb that natural balance within your body.”
A survey conducted by Aarts and colleagues of 700 nurses shows that three night shifts in a row is the most common occurrence. Many night workers operate according to a rotating three-shift schedule: morning, evening and night shifts. According to Aarts, the changeover is comparable to jet lag: during the day, the person has a greater chance of drowsiness, and at night falling asleep becomes more difficult. Fatigue also increases during night work, which increases the risk of injury.
Aarts wants to investigate whether the health risks of night work can be reduced – with the help of light. She walks up to a poster in her office. Pictured is a sequence of all the colours we know: the light spectrum. “Everything between the wavelength of 380 and 780 nanometers is called light,” she says. “We experience longer wavelengths as heat, and shorter wavelengths are what we call ultraviolet radiation.” She places her finger on the blue part of the spectrum, between 470 and 480 nanometers. “This light best suppresses the production of melatonin and thus causes a disruption of your circadian rhythm. If you’re going to sleep, you don’t want blue light. There are studies showing that blue light makes people more alert. That could help night workers. But other studies contradict this. It’s a relatively new area that we still know little about, but where there’s much to be gained.”
In white light – which we perceive as colourless – the whole colour spectrum can be found. The same is true of blue light. If blue light really does have a positive effect during night work, there are still questions to be answered. What kind of blue light is needed? And of what intensity, compared to other colours, when you want to illuminate a hospital or warehouse? The survey conducted by Aarts is part of a larger study into the influence of light on night nurses. This is still in the pipeline, but experiments with light in other places are already taking place.
Night workers from Intensive Care (IC) at the Jeroen Bosch Hospital in Den Bosch can use orange and luminous blue glasses. The blue glasses are meant for worktime. The orange glasses are for the way home, when it’s already light outside. They filter out the blue light. “I hear that many employees especially like the orange glasses,” says IC head Jo Bessems in a telephone conversation. “An internal, scientific survey on this starts next month. But from my colleagues, I’ve already heard that sleeping is improved.”
And that’s important because people who do nightshifts often don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep, says Aarts. “Everything that happens in your body during the day, you process during your sleep. Your body needs this time to recover for the next day. There are studies that show that if you’ve slept badly one night, it leads to a weaker immune system, lethargy – it’s all connected.”
While typing this article, my Word background isn’t white, but light orange.
This is due to a program that, as the hour gets later, increasingly filters out blue light from the computer screen. This type of technology is part of a new, growing market. “Technology that helps us to be healthier and therefore more productive,” says Charly Blödel (26), a Master's student in Social Design at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. Together with four fellow students, she’s making a collection of tools that help modern people to become better versions of themselves.
For example, the Pressure Alarm Clock in the form of a mat, which only stops when you stand on it. The iRobot Roomba 690 is a compact, sexy vacuum cleaner with wifi connectivity that operates independently, and Nora is a small device that adjusts your pillow so that you never assume the wrong neck position while sleeping. Or apps that help you with your diet, your meditation schedule, or that tell you how long you have been staring at the phone screen today. A pilot version of their collection seems like an ironic wink at humanity. Do we need all this technology? “I wouldn’t necessarily call it ironic,” says Blödel. “We live at an ever-increasing pace, a faster world in which it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by obligations and tasks. It’s logical that people are looking for easy solutions to their problems. And if it works, why not?”
As artist Danilo Correale comments, “Since the onset of capitalism, sleep has gone hand in hand with the consumer society. In the past, it was all about mattresses, now it’s all about apps.” He cites Sleep Genius, a phone app that helps you fall asleep faster: “It’s not intended to make you a better person, but a more productive person. So you can get back to work after your 20-minute powernap at Google.”
The 36-year-old Italian is fascinated by the relationship between sleep and work. He stages exhibitions worldwide in which the two themes are central. By talking to night workers and experts from different fields, he arrives at new insights, which are reflected in his works.
Via Skype, Correale shows the sleek, white-lit studio in New York where he will stay over the coming months. “In this city, it’s cool to say that you sleep-deprived,” he says. “That signifies productivity.” On his desk stands an e-cigarette, which every now and then emits a large cloud of steam as he takes a puff during the interview. Moving boxes cover the floor: the Italian artist has just returned from a trip through India and the Philippines, where he talked to dozens of night workers and photographed them for his upcoming project. “They’re mainly young, energetic people in their twenties and thirties,” he says. “Most of them work in the customer-service sector for US companies: Expedia, Mastercard, Hilton, you name it. Others are legal assistants; they collect online documents and information for their employer. And that for a tenth of an American salary.”
According to estimates, some 1.2 million Filippinos and approximately the same number of Indians work in this sector, called business process outsourcing (BPO). Finding a BPO job is easy. Recruitment centres are open 24/7 in these countries, which have high youth unemployment rates. “You’re working in a call centre within a day,” Correale says. BPO workers work five nights a week, with nine-hour shifts starting between six o’clock in the evening and three o’clock in the morning. Sleeping is done during the day. There is no right to days off. “Even though that is exactly what the workers need,” the artist adds. “Most people react laconically when you ask how they’re doing: ‘Everything’s all right, the work is fun.’ But if you keep asking, you hear that they have a lot of complaints. Problems with digestion, hormonal imbalances, a sore throat due to all the talking and smoking. There’s no time for a hospital visit. I asked an Indian who had been working in a call centre for ten years what was missing in his life. He replied, ‘I miss the sun.’”
The Italian’s face shows concern when he talks about the medical consequences for night workers. “But there’s a lot going on. The companies are rapidly laying off workers and jobs are being taken over by software. So they are beginning to organize themselves in trade unions. Up until now, they have been largely ignored, if not actively opposed by the business community and governments. The night workers call themselves ‘invisible workers’ and ask me if I can make them visible.” Correale intends to publish a book of portraits of the Indians and Filipinos who help Americans and Europeans change an airline ticket or cancel a hotel reservation at night. Below the photos will be a short quote about the work, or its physical, mental and social consequences. “The BPO industry exposes the domain of capitalism that extends even into the night. That’s interfering with our sleep rhythm. Because the factory is running 24/7.”
“You say nutrition is everything? That’s why you look like that!”
Owner Huisman jokes with butcher Sjaak Verbij who has just picked up his pieces of meat. It’s half past seven when the first Chateaubriand van drives off, full of orders. There’s a pleasant atmosphere in the cosy canteen. The employees have a coffee. Ten Brink eats a sandwich. “At half past eight we have a ten-minute break,” he says. “After that, we carry on working until it’s finished. That can be at three o’clock in the afternoon, but it often overruns to five o’clock.”
For Ten Brink, Huisman and Oldejans, that means a working day of up to fifteen hours. The fatigue usually hits on the road journey back, in the car. Especially in traffic jams, it’s a fight to stay awake, says Huisman: “You never drive fast, but a small rear-end bump sometimes occurs. It’s not good to talk about it, but it does happen.” Oldemans has to have the window down on the way back, “Otherwise things will go wrong.” According to colleagues, he’s had an ‘mishap’ here and there. “And if that’s not enough, you can always stick your head out of the window driving home. That wakes you up.”
Text: Zoran Bogdanovic