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The Health Effects of Shift Work

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on July 27, 2019 at 3:21 PM

Several industries rely on round-the-clock coverage to provide services, from hospitals and law enforcement to transportation and hospitality. And that means someone will get the graveyard shift.

Historically, shift work (and the night shift in particular) was dominated by blue-collar workers such as factory workers and security guards. Now, white-collar workers like brokers and computer programmers are increasingly working at night. Blue-collar or white-collar, the health effects of shift work are equally disastrous.

Shift Work Disorder

Shift work has such a catastrophic effect on workers over time that there’s a sleep disorder named for it.

Shift work disorder is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, which means that there is a chronic misalignment of sleep patterns. In plain English, it’s extremely difficult to sleep when you want to, need to, or expect to. It can be caused by working night shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts.

Common symptoms include:

  • Insomnia (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep)
  • Chronic tiredness when you need to be alert
  • Sleep that feels insufficient
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability or mood problems

This goes well beyond managing fatigue at work. Shift work disorder has detrimental effects on your mental and physical well being outside of the job.

Disruption to Natural Rhythms

At a deeper level, shift workers are subject to serious disruptions to their internal rhythms.

Humans are creatures of habit. This goes beyond simple preference – our bodies work better when they have a reliable pattern. Our circadian rhythms, for example, are naturally matched to the rising and setting of the sun. Evolutionarily speaking, light means awake, dark means sleep.

Night workers are especially susceptible to rhythm disruptions since night shifts run directly against our natural bodily rhythms. Your circadian rhythm is basically a timer telling your body when to release hormones to make you hungry, control your mood, or make you fall asleep.

As humans, we’ve evolved to cool down and shift into a low-gear rest period when it gets dark.

That’s a problem for people who have to make split-second decisions at 3 a.m.

Major Depressive Disorder

This attack on your body’s natural rhythms can play out in any number of health problems. Psychological problems are especially prevalent since your body doesn’t know when to release hormones to regulate your mood.

Major depression is a significant mental health risk for night workers.

To understand why, take a look at seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that arises like clockwork with the changing of the seasons. Basically, as days get shorter in the winter, your circadian rhythms are disrupted and your mood takes a blow.

Night workers, who struggle to sleep in darkened rooms during the day and struggle to stay awake in brightly lit rooms at night, are pitting their internal and external circadian rhythms against each other, producing a depressive state similar to seasonal affective disorder.

And for those who work night shifts for years, this can have dangerous long-term effects on their psychological well being.

Mitigating the Health Effects of Shift Work

The only way to truly eliminate the negative health effects of shift work is to reduce the irregularity of shifts or only work shifts in the daytime.

However, you can take certain steps to try to reduce the negative effects on your employees, even if you can’t eliminate the graveyard shift altogether. But you have to be committed to investing in your employees’ health and safety.

Topics: Workplace Health and Safety

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