Is working the night shift bad for your health? How shift work impacts your life
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 16% of wage and salary workers in the United States work shifts. Shift work refers to anything outside the traditional daytime schedule, including those working evenings, nights or very early mornings. Occupational-environmental medicine specialist Sandy Hardee, MD, explained how shift work impacts your health and how to enhance your quality of life if your schedule doesn’t match your friends and family.
What is the most common form of shift work? What kinds of industries hire for shift work?
“The most common form of shift work is the night shift,” said Dr. Hardee. “Over 8 million workers in the U.S. are estimated to be working what is considered to be a ‘night shift,’ with a work schedule that begins during the evening or night and runs into the early morning.”
Shift work overall employs about 22 million people across a broad range of industries, including hospitality, transportation, manufacturing and health care. Think about the night manager at a hotel desk, guards in a prison working overnight, drivers who transport necessary materials across the country or drive taxis throughout the night or the nursing and medical staff at a hospital there to provide emergency or medical services for patients through the night.
How does shift work affect the body?
“While shift work offers benefits like flexibility or higher pay rates, it can cause several adverse effects on the body,” said Dr. Hardee. “Our bodies evolved over thousands of years to operate on what’s called a circadian rhythm, which is a natural process within our bodies designed to regulate sleep-wake cycles and other bodily functions.”
Our body’s circadian rhythm is based on a 24-hour day, regulating hormones like cortisol (commonly called the ‘stress hormone’), melatonin (what helps us to fall fully asleep) and insulin, which helps utilize blood sugar to create energy. Shift work disrupts this natural rhythm, causing the body to function abnormally.
“When it comes to how shift work impacts your health, one of the biggest is by disrupting the natural sleep pattern,” said Dr. Hardee. “Workers who perform shift work often have to sleep during the day, but their bodies are programmed to be more alert at this time, so it’s harder to fall asleep.”
Those who work the night shift or other shift work have a higher incidence of sleep-related disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.
Is working nights bad for your heart? What about your stomach?
“The circadian rhythm regulates just about everything going on in our bodies,” said Dr. Hardee. “So shift work definitely has an impact on digestive and heart health.”
Constipation, bloating and indigestion are common complaints by shift workers, usually due to disrupted mealtimes and an imbalance in digestive enzymes.
“Shift work has also been linked to seriously increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even some forms of cancer,” said Dr. Hardee.
How long does it take to adjust to working nights?
“The length of time it takes you to adjust to shift work is different from person to person,” said Dr. Hardee. “It depends on how different your work schedule is from your usual daily life, whether or not you are able to create a good sleep environment when you return home and any number of other factors.”
Dr. Hardee noted that for most people, it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks for your body to fully acclimate to this new schedule. During this adjustment period, you may experience fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms.
What can you do to ease the adjustment to a different work schedule?
“My first piece of advice on easing the adjustment into shift work is to work on changing up your sleep schedule before your new shift begins,” said Dr. Hardee. “In the days leading up to it, head to bed progressively closer and closer to the time you’ll need to sleep in the future. This can help your body adjust, making it easier for you to wake up and fall asleep later on.”
Dr. Hardee offered some advice on creating a good sleep routine while working nights or other shift work:
- Limit your exposure to bright lights and electronic screens for at least one hour before bed, as these can disrupt sleep patterns and make it harder to fall asleep.
- Stick to a consistent routine, with a predictable schedule for meals, exercise and rest. This will help you body regulate your internal clock.
- Focus on making sure you have adequate rest, nutrition and activity throughout your day/night.
- Seek support from mental health professionals if you are experiencing difficulties with the transition or struggling with depressive or anxious thoughts as a result.
- Seek support from your friends, family or other loved ones, who may be able to help you with your adjustment.
What is ‘shift work disorder’?
“Shift work disorder is a medical condition that occurs due to someone working non-traditional work hours that require them to be awake while others are asleep,” said Dr. Hardee. “This condition is more common in those who work rotating night shifts, very early morning shifts or those who work for longer times like a 10-hour shift as opposed to an eight-hour shift.”
Symptoms of this disorder include difficulty falling or staying asleep, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating and depression. In short, they are the symptoms of serious sleep deprivation, and can become increasingly severe and disruptive to someone’s daily life and their physical and mental health.
What can you do to decrease the effects of shift work disorder?
“It is absolutely critical to develop a consistent sleep schedule,” said Dr. Hardee. “Maintain a sleep routine, even on your days off, by setting a bedtime and sticking to it. Wake up at the same general time. Don’t try to be awake at night all week only to suddenly try to be awake all day on weekends.”
Dr. Hardee further recommended shift workers sleep in a dark and quiet room, free from disruptive noise. Combining this with a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a healthy diet and avoiding alcohol consumption and smoking goes a long way in combating shift work disorder.
How can you improve quality of life when you do shift work?
Working nights, or non-traditional hours, can feel isolating when those around you are largely awake and active during the time you yourself need to sleep or prepare for work. Adhering to regular sleep schedules, good nutrition, exercise and time management can help you be in the physically best condition to handle shift work.
“It’s also important to be sure you have social support and maintain friendships and social connections,” said Dr. Hardee. “Make time for family and friends, scheduling time together in the afternoons or evenings once you’ve gotten the sleep you need. A healthy work-life balance and proactive coping strategies can help you thrive and enjoy a satisfying personal and professional life.”
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