Shift work and your health: the dangers of working at night

For most of us, it’s ‘normal’ to sleep at night and be awake during the daylight hours.

But if you’re one of the 17% of Australian who do ‘shift work’, life doesn’t work that way.

Shift workers are people who work rotating shifts, irregular shifts, evening shifts, afternoon shifts, morning shifts or split shifts.

Some industries, like mining and manufacturing, rely on shift workers to support their 24/7 operations. Shift work is also a way of life for people working in hospitality, transport and healthcare.

A few facts about shift work:

  • According to ABS figures, 1.4 million Australians (16%) are shift workers
  • Over two-thirds (68%) of shift workers worked full-time and over half (55%) were men.
  • Rotating shifts were the most common form of shift work for both men and women (48% and 37% respectively), followed by irregular shifts (16% and 22%) and evening shifts (15% and 16%).

3 ways working night shift can affect your life

1. Night shift works agains t your natural 'body clock'

Staying awake through the night runs counter to the body’s Circadian Rhythm. This is how your body knows when it should sleep, eat and repair itself. This rhythm is influenced by sunlight and temperature. If you’re constantly working against your body’s natural rhythm, it can be bad news for your health.

The main effects on your body are:

  • constant fatigue
  • inability to think clearly
  • difficulties sleeping
  • increased risk of weight gain
  • increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease
  • increased risk of breast, prostate and colo-rectal cancer.

2. Working at night often leads to chronic sleep deprivation

2-5% of workers suffer from Shift Work Sleep Disorder. This condition is defined as “excessive sleepiness while up at night, and insomnia when trying to sleep during the day.”

People who work at night often get two to three hours less sleep(on average) than other people.

How people are affected by working at night depends on the number of consecutive work hours and shifts, the rest periods, and the predictability of their work schedules.

Sleep deprivation can lead to an increased risk of accidents at work. It also increases the chances of people having an accident while driving to and from work.

3. Your relationships can suffer

Working night shift often means you’re simply not around when your loved ones are up and about. This can affect your relationships as you get less time to share your thoughts and your emotions.

Sleep deprivation can also affect your mood and make you less patient with others.

How to beat the downside of working at night

Let’s be realistic, there are many people whose job needs them to work into the wee hours. So, what are the best strategies for minimising the bad effects of night work?

  1. Keep healthy and maintain a regular exercise program - eat and drink well and moderately. Stretching before you go to sleep can help you relax. More active exercise that gets your heart pumping (swimming, jogging, walking, aerobics) is best done shortly after you wake-up.
  2. Maintain a regular sleep schedule – this might be out of your control, but if you’re able to keep up some sort of regular sleep routine (snooze at the same time of day) it helps.
  3. Create the right environment when you need to sleep – if you’re sleeping during the day, darken your windows and block out sounds that will interfere with your sleep. Put your phone on silent and a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your bedroom door.
  4. Try ‘light’ treatment – some studies suggest that exposure to bright light at night and darkness during the day can help ‘reset’ your body’s Circadian Rhythm and help your body adapt to night shift work.
  5. Make sure your mattress and pillow are comfortable – for the best quality sleep whatever time of day, ensure your mattress and pillow are supportive and comfortable.
  6. Be aware of the negative effects on your body – because shift work can affect your cognitive abilities, be extra careful when you’re driving and when using machinery.
  7. Nurture your loved ones – shift work can affect relationships, but it doesn’t have to be all bad news. Set aside some time to catch-up properly and do things you enjoy together. Leave little notes to tell them you’re thinking of them even if you’re not there. Send a quick, loving text.