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It is no secret that working night shifts isn’t easy work, fighting the urge to sleep when we normally would can disrupt your daily routine and impact multiple areas of your life. For multiple industries., such as medical, security, warehouse and transport workers, night shifts are necessary within employee rotas. What are the long term impacts of working nights and what can workplaces do to mitigate risks? Take a look at our below advice for night shift workers and managers to promote good health and wellbeing at work.
Working through the night versus the day has its pros and cons and may appeal to certain people depending on their lifestyle preferences. One pro of working during the night could be having fewer distractions during your shift, there is less chance of being distracted by interests outside of work as most people are asleep. Another positive is the quieter environment you are most likely going to face. In many roles it is common that night shifts may have less staff and less general supervision, leading to less conversation and noise.
For the cons, lack of normal sleep hours is a clear factor that some workers may not want to sign up for. Night shift hours may also disrupt your normal routine and impact your ability to make social plans and attend events you want to do outside of work.
Working nights can have lasting effects on both mental and physical health. Each person has a circadian rhythm which is their internal body clock, controlling when you are asleep and awake. Changing your sleep pattern or not having a consistent sleep routine can have a huge impact on your health. These are just some health conditions not looking after yourself whilst working nights can cause:
Studies have shown night shift workers have a higher rate of metabolic disturbance than day workers. Disruption to your circadian rhythm and poor sleep quality both play a part in this, making changes to your body’s natural metabolism. Working nights naturally also impacts your lifestyle habits, changing your normal eating patterns, this could lead to poorer choices in food and increased snacking if you have no access to healthy choices through the night. If you have a stressful job this also plays a part in potential weight gain, as your body naturally stores fat in response to stress, impacted by your levels of cortisol as a protective response from your body.
Linked to weight gain, diabetes is another risk from neglecting your health whilst working overnight. According to the CDC, your circadian rhythm has an impact on insulin levels, closely linked to diabetes. In the evening, your body releases melatonin to make you tired and insulin is released at the end of the day to balance blood sugar levels. Disrupting this leads to hormonal changes which can impact insulin and blood sugar levels, leading to insulin resistance. If you regularly skip meals during your shifts and eat inconsistently at home this can also play a part in blood sugars spiking and dropping, try to stick to a routine as much as possible to reduce your risk.
Research shows there is a link between night shift workers and cardiovascular diseases, with heart diseases presenting as a core risk to workers. Other lifestyle factors play a huge part in this, such as poor diet or smoking, so improving your food choices and not smoking will help reduce this risk. Those with existing health problems, such as high blood pressure, may be more adversely impacted by working nights - data shows those with preexisting blood pressure issues who worked night shifts saw a 14% increased risk in developing cardiovascular disease. You should assess risk before committing to jobs with abnormal hours.
Lack of social interaction, disruption to sleep and lack of exposure to natural light all affect your mental health in similar ways. Not having as much social interaction with your friends and family could lead to a feeling of isolation and withdrawal from future social situations. Lack of interaction can also exacerbate feelings of anxiety if this is a disorder you already suffer with. It can be more difficult to maintain relationships when you are on different sleep schedules so try to work out a way of keeping in touch with people that works for both of your schedules, set aside days to meet and make use of annual leave to interact with your friends and family so you are not withdrawing.
The tiredness caused by disrupted sleep schedules should not be underestimated in its impact on wider mental health. Not getting enough sleep or a good quality of sleep causes fatigue, meaning you will feel like you have less energy in the day and want to do less as a result. It is important to maintain your daily routine and practice self-care, even on days where you have less energy. This will lead to feeling better overall and increasing your energy levels over time.
Exposure to daylight is equally important for good mental health. We have seen a rise in awareness for Seasonal Affective Disorder in recent years, causing depression more frequently in winter months when there is less sunlight for those affected. Vitamin D, which we get through natural sunlight, modulates cell growth and leads to better sleep at night as our body is tuned into day and night.
Sleep health problems are so prevalent for shift workers, there is a precise condition to diagnose shift workers Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) includes symptoms such as feeling overtired, insomnia and hypersomnia. Insomnia refers to the struggle to sleep, lying awake unable to fall asleep and not staying asleep when you do drop off. Hypersomnia refers to feeling excessively tired at all times. Other symptoms of SWSD include: headaches, fatigue, lack of concentration, low mood and irritability. This can be treated with professional healthcare support, this could include therapy or medication to support routine improvements.
Have you ever suffered from uncontrollable eye twitching? You may have experienced Rapid Eye Movement outside of sleep, caused by lack of quality sleep. Not getting the right sleep can cause spasms in your eyelid, which occurs when you are awake. Symptoms for this may be worsened by caffeine or stress. This isn’t something to be concerned about as it typically resolves itself within a few days, but improving your routine and getting enough rest will ensure this does not occur.
Neuroticism is caused by neurosis and may manifest in different ways for different people. Some typically seen traits of neuroticism include: irritability, emotional instability, anger, depression and anxiety. This is a mental health condition which could have a significant impact on your life. Lack of fixed structure and routine has an effect on early stages of this, as does disruption to hormones and metabolism. Night shifts, by design, can contribute to worsening of mental health, especially if you work within a stressful environment. By maintaining healthy coping mechanisms, therapeutic support and treatment by your doctor you can manage this and see improvements to your mood as a result. It’s important to speak to your manager and ask for help if you find yourself suffering from these symptoms.
As an employer or line manager you have a duty of care to your employees to support their wellbeing in work. There are a few ways you can better support workers undertaking night shifts, see below: