by Helen Kay
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The 24 Hour Society.

by Martin Moore-Ede.

Piatkus Books; 230pp; £18.

Twentieth century technology has introduced us to the computer, the jet aeroplane and nuclear weaponry. It has placed the electric lamp, motor car, telephone and transatlantic travel at the disposal of the masses. But this mastery of the environment has been achieved at a high price, argues Dr Martin Moore-Ede, an associate professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School and a specialist in human fatigue. In The 24 Hour Society he presents an apocalyptic vision of a high-speed, non-stop world that is fast becoming unfit for the people it was intended to serve. Driven by economic and industrial imperatives, we have ignored the limitations of the human body and now risk sacrificing the man to the machine.

Moore-Ede concludes that many of our practices violate the body's natural rhythms. The biological clock operates on a day-night, cycle which is at odds with the often irregular work and travel patterns imposed by technology. This disjunction is a primary cause of fatigue in the workplace, which in turn causes human failure. The errors that lay behind the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Clapham Junction train crash and the Challenger disaster were all attributable to fatigue, the author observes.

Our failure to take account of the human clock has been compounded by technological systems and management practices which actually cause fatigue. Advances in avionics, for example, have automated many of the functions of an aircraft flight deck, thereby depriving the pilot of mental stimulation that would combat the soporific effects of darkness and irregular shifts. Similarly, dimmed lighting, a comfortable chair and a warm room reduce the alertness of the night operator whose job it is to monitor the computer console in a safety-sensitive industry.

Technological innovations have gone hand-in-hand with misguided management practices. The premise that medical interns learn best from tracking the entire course of an illness in individual patients has led to a system that leaves them chronically exhausted. Legislation to control the hours of long-distance lorry drivers has been equally deficient, creating a cycle of work and rest that conflicts with the rhythms of the human clock.

Fatigue is not confined, of course, to those engaged in repetitive manual tasks or nocturnal activities. Moore-Ede argues that the instantaneous transmission of information, via satellite, telephone and fax, exhausts decision-makers, who are confronted with news at previously unimaginable speeds and volumes. Statesmen and businessmen constantly have to struggle to overcome jet lag. Ignorance of human physiology has produced a machine-centred society, whose systems are designed to optimise the performance of technology rather than of people. The social price of fatigue-induced error is unquantifiable, but the cost of accidents, healthcare and productivity losses could be as much as $377 billion worldwide.

Moore-Ede calls for 'human-centred management' and the development of systems that apply recent scientific discoveries concerning the nature of fatigue. It has been established, for example, that our biological clocks can be reset by very bright lighting - many times brighter than that currently used in offices and factories. Temperature changes and certain aromas may provide other means of controlling fatigue. Feedback systems that monitor the brain waves, and alert people to the fact that they are dangerously sleepy, are in the early stages of development.

Ironically, however, it is the old-fashioned catnap that promises to be most effective. Scientists have found that a 20-30 minute nap every four hours will sustain people sufficiently to permit 21 or 22 hours of productive work per day. Moore-Ede accepts that few employers can now afford to be sympathetic to staff caught napping, least of all on a flight deck or in security-sensitive function where sleep is prohibited. But he believes that all will eventually have to recognise the need, and provide facilities for recuperation.

The author gives a fascinating account of the physiological factors that control our sense of time, and of their relevance to particular occupations. At present, it is difficult to imagine hard-nosed managers taking kindly to some of his conclusions. Few enough companies provide creches or sports facilities, even though these, too, can be said to improve productivity. The evangelical tone of the book may forfeit a certain amount of sympathy. By preaching to his readers, Moore-Ede runs the risk of alienating them. But it will be a pity if it does so, since he has produced a thought-provoking work - composed, he assures us, according to a schedule in harmony with his circadian rhythms.

Helen Kay is a freelance journalist.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime