Here's Why Night and Shift Work Is Bad for You

Working at night is usually defined as any work that takes place between the hours of 7:00 pm and 7:00 am, and these hours are generally the domain of shift workers. As human beings, we were designed to be awake primarily during daylight hours, and sleeping or resting at night. If not adequately monitored, disrupting this balance can lead to a variety of health problems. In this article, we'll cover the potential dangers and adverse effects of working at night and what you can do to counteract them.

Working at night can be the cause of both major and minor health issues and accidents. The effects vary, but lots of shift workers experience problems such as troubled sleep, or changes in appetite. Regarding actual impact on the body, working at night can cause the following health issues, many of which are interrelated.

 

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Poor digestion
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Increased risk of disease
  • Reliance on sedatives
  • Reliance on coffee, caffeine and other stimulants
  • Body clock being thrown out of sync
  • Problems at home, with family and friends

 

Any single one of these issues, or a combination of a few, can lead to poor concentration, and slower reaction times, leaving night workers more vulnerable to accidents at work. Each person has a different tolerance to the various effects of night work, depending on their age, general health, fitness levels, sleeping habits, and coping strategies. But those who are particularly vulnerable tend to be:

 

  • Older people
  • Younger people
  • People with existing health problems like diabetes
  • Temporary workers
  • Expectant mothers
  • New parents
  • Workers on call

 

A 2014 study at the Brigham Women's Hospital in Boston, US, provided evidence of just how dangerous shift work can be. Scientists placed 20 healthy volunteers in a sleep lab for three weeks. By changing lights irregularly, and taking away clocks and other clues about time, they altered the subjects' normal body clock. Within just a few days, the scientists noticed that the volunteers' bodies had begun to respond differently to the food they ate, with dangerous results; glucose levels rose and stayed high for several hours. This was because of the decreased insulin release from the pancreas. In combination, these two factors represent an increased risk of diabetes.

 

“Did you know that night shift workers are much more likely

to have a car accident than their nine-to-five counterparts?”

 

Numerous studies have been carried out which have shown that shift workers face a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other problems. But the Brigham study was one of the first to show exactly how the body is harmed. The diabetes risk was so significant that three of the previously healthy volunteers became pre-diabetic during the experiment. Nine days after returning to a regular sleep/wake cycle their metabolism became normal again.

 

The researchers advised that when possible, shift workers should try to eat when their body clocks are not out of whack. But people who work long and night shifts know how difficult that can be. Workers are generally kept busy, so instead of regular meal breaks, they tend to snack whenever they get a free minute, which leads to them eating far less healthy foods.

 

But working the graveyard shift doesn't only increase the risk of diabetes, it is also bad for our brains. Night and shift workers tend to perform less well on memory and general cognition tests. Working irregular hours for a period of 10-years or more can cause severe cognitive decline, and just fifty days of shift work is enough to experience the negative effects. The data comes from a long-term study of over 2,000 salaried workers living in the south of France, about half of whom had worked irregular shifts at some point in their careers. Each test subject was given a questionnaire and a clinical examination three times a year over a period of ten years.

 

According to the research, working in a rotating shift pattern for more than 10-years is the equivalent of over six years of average cognitive decline. Even those who undertook the minimum of 50 days shift work, which was defined as jobs that kept them up past midnight, or woke them before 5:00 am experienced an average of 4.3 years of cognitive decline, even if the shift work experience happened years in the past.

 

“Sleeping is by far the most challenging aspect of working the

night shift, but for shift workers, it has to become a priority.”

 

It helps to accept the fact that working nights means you cannot keep the same schedule as your day-working family and friends. And sleeping during the day is a lot easier when you can trick your brain into thinking it is night time. The following are a few tips on how to do just that:

 

Blackout curtains and shades can create a pleasant and dark sleeping environment. An electric fan in the bedroom will emit the white noise which makes you far less sensitive to miscellaneous, and annoying, indoor and outdoor sounds. Some people may also find the light breeze relaxing and supportive of a restful sleep. Set your phone to do-not-disturb. You really don't need work calling you and asking if you can come in early, or friends asking you out for a drink.

 

When you get home from work, disengage yourself from electronics. This is important because our modern gadgets and devices tend to make us stay up later than we should, and thus missing that window of opportunity actually to fall asleep naturally. If for some reason you can't sleep, try not to allow yourself to become a victim of 'sleep anxiety.' Don't allow yourself to get all worked up about not being able to sleep, and worrying how tired you're going to be during your next shift.

 

If you're working nights or shifts, you should plan and prepare healthy meals ahead of time. Also, make healthy snacks to take to work with you. This will make you less likely to be tempted to eat a pizza at two o'clock in the morning. Avoid drinking coffee or other caffeine drinks 4 hours towards the end of your shift, and try to limit your intake of coffee before you start work.

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