In the modern world, work is no longer confined to daylight hours. Various industries such as healthcare, security, and hospitality require round-the-clock operations, leading to a significant portion of the workforce embracing night shift work.
While these irregular hours are necessary to meet the demands of our 24/7 society, it is crucial to understand the significant health impacts that can result from this disruption to the natural sleep-wake cycle, known as circadian rhythms.
The goal of this article is to shed light on these concerns and provide strategies to promote a healthier work environment for night shift employees.
What is a circadian rhythm?
Circadian rhythms refer to the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment. They are found in most living things, including animals, plants, and many tiny microbes.
Night shift work has long been associated with higher rates of mental health issues, sleep disorder, obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
The study of circadian rhythms is called chronobiology. Our biological systems, including our sleep and wake cycle, appetites and digestive patterns, body temperatures, and even our moods, follow these daily patterns.
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have both released reports suggesting a strong correlation between persistent night shift work and an increased risk of cancer. This risk is attributed to the disruption of the circadian rhythms, leading to significant health consequences.
Our data provides a snapshot of some key health concerns faced by night shift workers:
- Mental health issues: 59% of night shift workers affected.
- Sleep disorders: 47% of night shift workers affected.
- Digestive problems: 32% of night shift workers affected.
- Cardiovascular disease: 14% of night shift workers affected.
In addition to the potential risk of cancer, night shift work has been associated with a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, and sleep disorders.
Night shift workers also exhibit an increased risk for reproductive issues, such as irregular menstrual cycles, miscarriage, and preterm birth. Digestive problems and psychological issues, such as stress and depression, are more common among night shift workers.
These health concerns, combined with the fatigue associated with night shift work, can lead to an increased risk of accidents and injuries.
A proactive approach
To mitigate these health impacts, both employers and employees can take proactive steps. The NIOSH recommends regular health check-ups for night shift workers, and workers should report any symptoms that may be associated with their work schedule, such as severe fatigue, sleep disturbances, stomach or intestinal problems, mood changes, or performance issues.
Additionally, practicing good health behaviors, such as getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco, and limiting alcohol consumption can help combat the effects of night shift work.
The employer’s goal should be to create an environment where employees can thrive, regardless of the hours they work.
Night shift work has long been associated with higher rates of mental health issues, sleep disorder, obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. These health risks arise due to the misalignment of the biological clock of the worker with the external light-dark environment.
Major industrial accidents also tend to occur during the night shift, a pressing safety concern for employers.
According to recent research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), night shift work, long considered a necessary part of the industrialised world, puts workers at a higher risk for chronic diseases including cancer.
NIOSH has produced numerous studies on the adverse health effects of shift work, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The impact of shift work on health is a significant occupational safety and health concern, and NIOSH continues to study the effects of shift work on health outcomes.
Nine ways to improve employee experience
To help guide employers and workers through this issue, we’ve provided nine actionable tips, synthesised from insights gathered from Overnightjobs.com and recognised bodies such as the Manchester University’s Policy Blog and NIOSH.
1. Manage shift schedules
Implement schedule designs that consider health and safety, and allow employees to have a say in their schedules.
2. Encourage regular breaks
Ensure workers have time for short rest breaks.
3. Provide health education
Provide resources and training to help shift workers understand and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
4. Maintain a safe workplace
Implement safety measures to reduce workplace hazards and incidents.
5. Facilitate access to healthy foods
Provide workers with nutritious food options during their shifts.
6. Promote open communication
Encourage workers to discuss safety concerns and suggestions.
7. Promote regular sleep patterns
Encourage workers to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, even on their days off, to help regulate their body’s internal clock..
8. Offer mental health resources
Providing access to mental health resources and creating an open dialogue about mental health can help employees feel supported and reduce the stigma around seeking help.
9. Encourage regular exercise
Regular physical activity can help combat some of the negative health effects of night shift work, including cardiovascular disease.
A unique approach
In our 24/7 society, night shift work is a necessity, and employers owe it to these essential workers to provide the support and resources they need to stay healthy. The employer’s goal should be to create an environment where employees can thrive, regardless of the hours they work.
It’s important to ensure that their unique health needs are addressed, and that they are equipped with the knowledge and tools to manage the challenges of night shift work. This includes offering flexible schedules, providing health and wellness programmes, and fostering an organisational culture that values work/life balance.
By working closely with employees on this, organisations can mitigate the health risks associated with night shift work and create a healthier, more productive workforce.
If you enjoyed this, read: Does your employee mental health support fall short?