How shift work affects health

By: Grant King, IndustrySearch writer
02 November, 2016

Shift work is bad for your health. There, I’ve said it. End of article. Well, not quite.

While shift work can indeed lead to ongoing jetlag-like problems and increase certain health risks, it's not going away and there are ways to manage those who rely on it, be they companies or workers. So let's look at the problems shift work creates and see if we can offer some solutions.

A 24/7 dilemma

Factories, hospitals, airlines, hotels and police departments; these are just some of the businesses and organisations that demand 24 hour care and attention. Factory workers, pilots, flight attendants, doctors, nurses, concierges, porters and police officers; these are just some of the people required to provide that care and attention. Which means day shifts and night shifts, often on rotation.

Rotating shifts put workers in a spin

It makes sense: anyone working set hours, say 9 to 5, gets into a pattern, a life routine. They have breakfast, lunch and dinner at around the same times. They sleep at around the same time. So they enjoy roughly the same diet and sleep patterns. Rotating shifts throw both diet and sleep patterns out the bedroom window.

Shift work increases health risks

Sad, but true. The human body isn't designed to handle shift work very well. It's a lot like flying from Sydney to New York every few weeks; that disoriented, jet lagged feeling as sleep deprivation from trying to adjust to yet another work time zone takes effect. Unfortunately the result is a significantly heightened risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, a reduction in overall well being and even a reduction in general brain function.

Circadian rhythms miss a beat

The processes in our mind and body follow a particular natural rhythm and any with a cycle length of about a day are called circadian rhythms. When these are disrupted by changing sleep patterns due to shift work, important functions such as body temperature and wakefulness can be affected, even the production of certain hormones. Quite simply shift work stops the body synchronising with its environment. The result is a fatigued, confused mind and body and an increased risk of health problems.

A shift in shift work thinking

Let's face it, shift work isn't going away. So what can be done? Well, for a start those charged with organising the rosters can rotate workers less often. The longer a worker stays on the same shift the longer their circadian rhythms stay in sync. Shift workers can also adopt some techniques to reduce the affects of rotation. On the last days of a night shift, they can delay sleep by about 2 hours to help their adjustment to a new shift. Staying on the same schedule even on days off also helps to keep the body in sync for longer. Another good one – after a night shift and before leaving the building, they can put on dark glasses to avoid daylight and any other light cues that affect the ability to sleep.