Abnormal Work Shifts & Your Health

For many of us, the traditional 9 am – 5 pm workday is just not a reality… even if we want it to be.

Due to growing childcare needs, college class schedules, and industry demands, millions of people turn to shift work just to pay the bills.

Shift work, as defined by the National Sleep Foundation, is work that takes place on a schedule outside the traditional 9 am – 5 pm day. It includes evening or night shifts, early morning shifts, and rotating shifts.

These hours are commonplace for roughly 15 million Americans, according to 2004 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Service occupations, such as protective service (e.g., police and firefighters), food preparation and serving, healthcare, and transportation, often utilize shift work in order to meet demand and “get the job done.”

Known Consequences of Shift Work

Though shift work is a necessity for many individuals and industries, there are potential adverse effects to short- and long-term shift work, including:

  • disruption of normal circadian rhythms
  • excessive sleepiness
  • insomnia
  • shift work disorder
  • drowsy driving
  • decreased performance and productivity
  • safety concerns (for worker and peers)
  • problems with physical and mental health
  • increased health issues (e.g., ulcers, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, breast cancer, reproductive difficulties)
  • disrupted social life

Shift Work and Impaired Brain Power

The adverse effects mentioned above have been known throughout the medical and health communities for several years. However, very little has been understood about the long-term consequences of shift work on cognitive abilities, which are the brain-based skills we need to learn, remember, problem solve, and pay attention.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Toulouse, shift work “chronically impairs cognition, with potentially important safety consequences not only for the individuals concerned, but also for society.”

Researchers examined more than 3,000 men and women who were working or retired over a 30-year timespan. 1,484 of them had shift work experience, while 1,635 had none. Tests of speed and memory were conducted at 10-year intervals. At each time interval, individuals who were exposed to shift work currently or recently consistently performed more poorly on the cognitive tests than those who had no exposure.

Fortunately, the researchers also discovered a worker could regain most cognitive abilities after at least five years of no exposure to shift work.

Mitigating Shift Work Hazards

The best way to avoid the hazards of shift work is to seek out a more traditional work schedule.

However, many workers cannot avoid shift work. As a result, it is important to mitigate the hazards as much as possible and learn ways of coping with shiftwork.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends both organizational and individual approaches to mitigating hazarding.

Organizational or group approaches include the following:

  • redesigning the work schedule
  • redistributing the workload
  • improving the work environment
  • instituting programs to improve worker awareness

Individual approaches include the following:

  • improved sleep strategies
  • regular exercise
  • diet programs
  • relaxation techniques

For more information about coping with shiftwork, review this booklet developed by the CDC.

Can you think of any other ways to help individuals cope with shift work and reduce hazards?