Are you aware of the toll that working while the world sleeps, can take on your health? Night shift workers live in a constant state of jet lag!
Nearly 15 million Americans work the night shift and that number is expected to grow, not just in the USA. The number of retailers staying open 24-hour is rapidly increasing.
According to an article in the journal, “Occupational and Environmental Medicine,” cardiovascular disease, fatigue, insomnia, obesity, stress and anxiety have all been linked to higher rates among shift workers, as has depression.
It is not yet certain if it is the night-shift hours themself that cause depression or, as many shift-workers choose jobs with such hours, if shift workers are simply more inclined to mental health problems. However, night-shift work may be linked with depression because of the disruption of certain biological processes, such as the circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms are controlled by an internal clock and influenced by external cues to start or cease different functions. The most powerful of these external cues are light and darkness. Humans are evolutionarily designed to wake at sunrise and sleep at sunset and prolonged exposure to bright lights at night and darkness in the day, can throw off these rhythms.
Human beings are designed to rest at night (when dark) and wake up (to the light) energised. The struggle to sleep during the day can cause illness similar to Seasonal Affective Disorder (feeling low during the cold months of the year).
When you work the night shift, you are not just losing sleep. You are fighting against your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
Less apparent but equally deleterious to well-being is the emotional toll of night shift work. When you work at night, you are cut off from friends and family, you have little social support, your diet may not be as healthy. When day shift workers get home, they can do do things that relax them, like go out to eat or grab a drink with a friend. But when you are working the night shift, you lose this lifestyle. You are facing additional stress, but you have fewer ways to cope with it.
In 2007, shift work was listed by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as a “probable carcinogen.”
It is thought that suppressed levels of the hormone melatonin put workers at this risk. Melatonin production usually occurs at night and is compromised under artificial light. Melatonin regulates pituitary and ovarian hormones including oestrogen. Elevated levels of oestrogen are linked to increased risk of reproductive cancers.
The ongoing disruption of a person’s natural circadian rhythms has also been linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, digestive problems and diabetes.
It is not uncommon for shift workers to develop psychiatric conditions due to accumulated sleep debt. “Things get to a point where it begins to impact their social function and relationships. They might feel depressed or more anxious.”
Many night workers are diagnosed with Shift Work Disorder, a diagnosis given to anyone who cannot cope with the changes in their circadian rhythm. They experience extreme sleepiness and often insomnia and depression as well. Sufferers are three times more likely to have an accident on the job than are employees who do not work a night shift.
How to Manage Night Work
Shift workers can help themselves by adjusting their schedules and lives to work with their circadian rhythm cycles as much as possible. If light levels at work are a controllable factor, use only what is needed to see: the less light exposure, the better.
If possible, working night shifts on a permanent basis is preferable to on-again, off-again cycles, as given a sufficient amount of time the body’s circadian rhythms will eventually adapt to being awake at night and reduce the symptoms associated with shift work.
If permanent shift work is not an option, consider doing shift work either in large blocks of time, such as a few months at a time, to prevent the need to constantly shift rhythms, or else work as few night shifts in a row as possible — preferably only one, to maintain a diurnal operating schedule
Regardless of shift worked, physical exercise has conclusively shown to reduce depression symptoms; night-shift workers prone to depression would benefit from a regular exercise regimen and a healthy diet.
Why do people work nights?
26 percent of night shift workers choose shift work because of child-care needs.
For most it is a matter of this being their only employment option that works financially.