The Link Between Shift Work & Unhealthy Lifestyle

In medicine shift work is considered as a risk factor

The Fundamentals of Shift Work

The world perhaps wouldn’t function the way it does without shift work.

Whether it is the waiters at your favorite fast food joint, the people, the call center personnel’s who assist you at all odd hours, the people behind the newspapers you read with your early morning cup of coffee, the nurses who tend to you in the hospitals, or the employees at convenience stores you run to at a moment’s notice – shift work is synonymous to our busy world today.

Popularly, shift work is usually associated with ‘night shifts’. A definition of shift work would however, refer to shift work as a work schedule that utilizes 24 hours a day, and occasionally, 7 days a week, to keep an organization running smoothly and to maximize productivity.

For some it is a means to earn some extra money, for others it is a way to climb up the career ladder. Either ways, shift work with its odd hours, is exhausting and demanding.

The Demands of Shift Work on Your Health

Several recent studies show that the odd hours and demands of shift work can cause serious health risks.

To understand why, it is important to realize that our bodies have a built-in, natural clock, which in scientific terms is called the ‘circadian rhythm’.

The Link Between Shift Work And Unhealthy Lifestyle

The circadian rhythm – a 24 hour clock – is essentially your body’s ability to recognize and react to natural daylight and darkness. All biological activities of the body – whether associated with hormonal balance, sleep, digestion, metabolism, or cardiovascular functions – depend heavily on your body’s circadian rhythm.

So you understand now how a disruption in the natural clock of your body can lead to serious health problems.

The Long List of Health Problems Associated With Shift Work

In a recent experiment to study the health risks of shift work, 10 healthy adults were asked to follow an inconstant, changing schedule of sleeping and eating.

After just 10 days of the experiment, it was found that the adults showed an increased appetite, higher blood pressure, higher blood sugar level and signs of insomnia. In the words of Scheer, the scientist who led the study, “The changes were very rapid. It didn’t take years of disruption to the circadian rhythm to have medical effects”

You can imagine then, what years of disruption of the circadian rhythm can do to your body and health. A small scale laboratory experiment does not come close to capturing the variety and extent of health problems that shift workers all over the world have to deal with.

Fatigue, insomnia, upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation and heart burn is just the top of a long list of health risks that shift work presents. The long term health effects are even more varied and disturbing.

Cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks, have been strongly tied to shift work for decades with one study even stating that the risk of stroke increases by 5% for every five years of shift work.

The increase in blood sugar lever and blood pressure, an increase in appetite and disrupted hormonal balance, invariably increases the risk factor for diabetes and obesity.

Employees who worked 16 hour shifts were faced with a 50% higher risk of diabetes

A Japanese study found that employees who worked 16 hour shifts were faced with a 50% higher risk of diabetes. While another study found that night workers eat more than day workers, thus making them more prone to obesity.

Serotonin, the hormone responsible for good moods and emotions of happiness, fall to lower levels with shift work, especially night shifts. The result is unexpected mood swings and symptoms of depression, taking a heavy psychological toll on the worker.

Another unexpected health effect of shift work is the impact it has n a woman’s reproductive system, with one study showing that flight attendants were more prone to miscarriages and fertility problems.

Several years of continuous shift work can significantly increase the risk of cancer

Perhaps the most disturbing of all however, is the links found between shift work and cancer. In 2007, the World Health Organization refereed to shift work as ‘probably carcinogenic’, with studies showing that several years of continuous shift work can significantly increase the risk of cancer.

How You Should Deal With The Health Risks of Shift Work

The purpose of this article is not to alarm you into quitting your job, but simply to help you understand the health risks, so that you can deal with them better.

While the impact of shift work on your health is undeniably serious, don’t let the studies and statistics scare you yet. There are a few simple solutions to ensuring that you don’t let your work shifts make unreasonable demands on your health.

  • Take care of yourself : The worst mistake most of us make is getting so caught up in the chaos of daily life that we ignore ourselves and our health. Exercise regularly, eat well, keep your weight in check and get enough rest. If you find sleeping in the day difficult, block the windows in your bedroom with shades or use sleep masks, but ensure you get a few undisturbed hours of sleep every day.
  • Make adjustments in your shifts : While it is not always possible, try moving your night shift to a day time shift, or find shifts that are shorter and more flexible. Schedule naps between your shifts and make time for yourself.
  • Seek medical help : If shift work is absolutely unavoidable, ask a doctor for medicines that might help you stay awake during your shift or help you sleep when you need to. Regular health check-ups will keep you aware of your health problems, and help you tackle them better.
  • Look for other options : The truth is that the longer you work in shifts, the worse your health will get. Our bodies are not designed to be able to keep up with shift works forever. Start looking for a job with a more stable schedule, but if you don’t find one, make sure to take good care of your health.


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Pursuing an MSc in Geology, apart from science, writing on HR has always been one of my greatest passions.