The Truth About Shift Work

Updated on March 18, 2018
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April has her MFA in creative nonfiction, over 11 years writing experience. She is a mother and a wife.

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As the wife of an officer, I’ve seen what shift work can do to the body. My husband has worked shift work for almost 20 years and it's taken its toll. His inability to sleep during the day leaves him feeling exhausted, moody, and disorientated. We affectionately refer to him as a walking zombie when he's on a month of night-shift. Though we joke about it, it's really no laughing matter.

Personal Impact

We've gone to therapy to work through many of our communication barriers as a result of shift work. The human brain can't properly function without adequate rest. I've learned to give my husband mental and personal space when he is working nights and not to take his irritability personally. I try to create a quiet environment during the days that he's home resting. I take my son out of the house and limit our indoor activity.

My husband developed sleep apnea which requires him to wear a CPAP machine. Though this sleeping disorder is related to many other external factors, I know that his inconsistent sleep schedule is partly to blame. Shift work also means the inability to always keep a consistent schedule. My husband is about 25 pounds overweight, due to lack of routine and regular eating habits. He tries to combat this by packing food to bring with him to work and incorporating exercise into his schedule, when possible.

But the fact of the matter remains that it's not natural for someone to work over 12 hours at a time, at least not for weeks on end. Shift work means working while the rest of the world sleeps. For many emergency services personnel, medical professionals, and factory workers, shift work is a reality. Whether it’s a love of the job or a financial necessity, shift work is a way of life for many.

But how exactly does it affect the human body? And what can you do to help reverse some of the negative impacts shift work has on your well-being? Let’s take a look.

What is Shift Work?

Though most people view shift work as working midnight to the wee hours of the morning, the National Sleep Foundation defines shift work as any hours of work that fall outside of the standard 9 to 5 workday.

Shift work impacts both a person’s biology and lifestyle. I can attest to the fact that when my husband works night shifts, he is a different person. These two components are linked in many ways. Let’s take a look.

Socialization

It’s quite obvious that if you’re working hours that differ from the general population, that your entire life will be “off” from the rest of the world. This includes friends and family. Working odd hours negatively affects your social life. Most people you know are getting together at the same time and that time might be when you’re heading to work. Not having a healthy dose of social interaction or “downtime” can lead to social isolation and feelings of loneliness. This can eventually lead to depression.

Health Risks

Although many shift work schedules follow a certain pattern, this schedule still makes it difficult to incorporate other, healthy, habits into your life. This means lack of exercise and the tendency to eat more unhealthy foods. Your body is following a pattern that it’s not accustomed to and that makes everyday tasks more difficult.

There are both short term and long term health complications associated with shift work. Short-term effects include upset digestive health, insomnia, higher risk of illness and injury, and overall feeling of being unwell. The long-term effects of shift work are even more disturbing. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Diabetes

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Depression

  • Obesity

  • Cancer

  • Fertility issues

Being aware of these medical risks can offer some defense against them

Sleep Patterns

Shift work negatively impacts a person’s sleep patterns. Your body is designed to sleep at night when it’s dark outside. This is called the circadian rhythm. Trying to sleep during off hours can lead to lack of sleep, trouble falling asleep and sleep disturbances. This disruption can cause a variety of imbalances within the human body from throwing off a person’s metabolism, digestion, immune system, and hormones.

There is Hope

Not all hope is lost. There are some minor and major adjustments you can make to your routine that will help combat some of the negative effects of shift work.

Make Time for Diet and Exercise

Though maintaining healthy eating and exercise habits while on shift work isn’t easy, it’s not impossible. Just as those who work 9 to 5, you can schedule time in your day, either before or after work, to exercise. Exercising as few as three days a week can have a positive impact on your overall well-being - both physically and mentally.

The same can be said for your diet. Pack yourself healthy meals to have during your working hours. Food prep goes a long way. Having healthy food options on hand will keep you from purchasing quick meals that aren’t always the healthiest option.

Create a Friendly Sleep Environment

If you have trouble sleeping during “off” hours, try creating a peaceful and relaxed sleep environment. Room darkening blinds are a great way to create darkness in your bedroom, simulating the darkness of night. This can help trick your mind into thinking it’s actually nighttime, allowing you to sleep more soundly. A sleep mask can help achieve the same results.

If you don’t live alone, perhaps ask your roommates or family members to respect your rest time by staying quiet or going outside of the house while you’re trying to sleep. Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and heavy meals prior to sleep

Talk to Your Doctor

If you’re concerned with how shift work is affecting your body, meet with your doctor. They may prescribe medication to help you sleep better during your off hours and stay more alert during work. If you’re opposed to taking medicine, your doctor can offer alternative methods, as well. Unfortunately, if your shift work schedule is compromising your overall health in obvious and dangerous ways, a change in careers might be necessary.

Be Aware

Your first line of defense against the negative effects of shift work is being aware. Understanding how shift work can impact your physical and mental well-being can help you combat these effects. Make a plan for both sleep and incorporating healthier habits during your awake hours. Some people can easily adjust their behaviors and schedules to accommodate shift work, while others may have more difficulty. Take a close look at your career choice and how it’s affecting your overall life and well-being. A change may be in order.

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