In a world that’s on 24/7, many industries and services run around the clock so the reliance on shift workers has increased. Given the irregular hours that the shift workforce has to maintain, it comes as no surprise that their sleep and health might be affected. From disruptions to the circadian sleep rhythms, which affect an individual’s sleep quality, to an increased risk of heart disease and strained social relationships, shift work can take its toll. Discover more as Bloom explores the topic in more detail.
What is shift work?
Shift work is a work schedule that falls outside of the traditional 8-to-5 working hours that most people have. It involves work rotations or irregular hours, including night shifts and very early morning shifts, sometimes on weekends and public holidays. Shift work is vital for some industries and is used to ensure around-the-clock operations. Examples of shift workers include:
- The health sector, like doctors and nurses
- Law enforcement, like private security response officers and policemen
- Manufacturing, like factory workers
- Emergency services, like paramedics and firemen
- Hospitality, like hotel workers
- Customer service, like call centre operatives
- Food services, like chefs and restaurant workers
- Media and broadcasting, like newsreaders and journalists
The effects of shift work on sleep patterns
Shift work has a profound effect on sleep cycles and quality, leading to a range of health problems. This is because irregular work hours disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, resulting in an abnormal sleep pattern. Some of the ways an individual’s sleep pattern is affected include:
- Disrupted circadian rhythm. This refers to your body’s internal 24-hour clock, which regulates sleep-wake cycles, hormone release and other processes that sync with the day-night cycle. Shift work often requires night hours, which contradicts your body’s natural circadian rhythm which makes it difficult to fall asleep during the day and stay awake at night.
- Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep patterns. An adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Typically, shift workers have to operate with shorter, fragmented sleep periods, which means that they don’t achieve the recommended down time. A lack of sleep puts one at risk for various chronic conditions, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also impairs an individual’s cognitive functioning, increasing the chance of making mistakes or injuring yourself.
- Increased risk of developing a sleep disorder. Shift workers can suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder, amongst others. SWSD is characterised by insomnia, difficulty staying asleep or feeling sleepy at inappropriate times.
- Reduced REM Sleep. Rapid Eye Movement is a sleep stage characterised by vivid dreams and increased brain activity. It’s needed for memory consolidation and emotional processing. REM is often reduced in shift workers, which has a negative effect on emotional well-being and mental health.
Physical health effects of shift work
Shift work also has a number of other physical health effects on individuals. Some of the most common include the following:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Shift work has been linked to high blood pressure, an irregular heart rhythm and certain types of heart disease.
- Obesity. A lack of sleep can disrupt an individual’s metabolism, appetite and eating pattern, which means that shift workers have an increased risk of developing weight problems, like obesity.
- Gastrointestinal problems. Digestive issues, like indigestion, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and acid reflux are common effects of shift work.
- Increased risk of diabetes. Shift workers are at risk for Type 2 diabetes due to disrupted insulin regulations.
- Compromised immune system. Shift workers can develop a weakened immune system, which makes them more susceptible to infections.
- Hormonal imbalance. Disrupted sleep patterns and cycles can affect hormone regulation, which leads to imbalances that can cause several types of other health issues.
- Increased risk of cancer. There are links between shift work and certain types of cancer, like breast cancer and prostate cancer, due to the disrupted circadian rhythm.
- Reduced fertility and problem conceiving. Shift work can affect both a man’s and a woman’s reproductive health, reducing fertility and causing problems when trying to conceive.
Mental and emotional effects of shift work
The effects of shift work on an individual’s emotional and mental health are quite significant. Some of the effects include the following:
- Increased stress levels. The constant changing of work schedules can become quite a strain, resulting in increased stress and anxiety.
- Reduced cognitive function. Disrupted sleep patterns and sleep deprivation can affect an individual’s cognitive ability, which means they may experience poor judgement, reduced decision-making and problem-solving skills, and poor concentration.
- Depression. Shift workers are at a higher risk of developing mood disorders, like depression because of the disruption of the circadian rhythm.
- Strained social relationships. The irregular hours of shift work mean that many shift workers experience difficulties with personal relationships as there is limited quality time to spend with family members or significant others.
- Burnout. The combination of physical and emotional demands of shift work can contribute to complete burnout, characterised by feelings of exhaustion and apathy.
- Substance abuse. Shift workers can be tempted to overuse stimulants like caffeine or resort to types of medication to deal with the constant fatigue or sleep disturbances.
Coping tips for shift work
It’s important for shift workers to take steps to reduce their risk of developing health issues. The following steps are recommended:
- Commit to a regular and consistent sleep schedule
- Optimise your sleeping hours
- Eating a balanced and nutritious diet
- Practice stress-reduction techniques, like meditation or yoga
- Go for regular health check-ups and medical screenings
- Reduce screentime at least two hours before going to sleep
- Make lifestyle changes if you are diagnosed with any health issues
Get healthcare coverage for the whole family
Bloom supports a healthy lifestyle. Members are encouraged to prioritise their health by paying attention to their physical and emotional well-being, especially if you or a family member is a shift worker. There are many serious health effects of shift work so make sure you find the right balance to ensure good health. Get covered for health risks with a health insurance or medical aid plan. Contact our offices to speak with a trained consultant. We can discuss your options that suit both your individual needs and your budget.