WORK-LIFE BALANCE / MAY. 26, 2015
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How Shift Work Affects Your Health

The negative impact shift work has on the physical and mental health of employees is fairly well established, with previous studies suggesting that shift workers are up to 40 percent more likely to suffer from cardiovascular problems, for instance. Alas, shift work is an increasingly common occupational hazard, and as such is having a big impact upon the health of our society as a whole, especially between socioeconomic classes.

See also: How Working Nights Affects your Health -- and What to do About It

A recent study from the University of Wisconsin highlights the challenges facing shift workers, with findings emerging that such employees are more likely to suffer sleep problems, be overweight, and potentially even develop disorders such as diabetes, compared to their peers in 9-5 style jobs.

"Shift work employees are particularly vulnerable to experiencing sleep problems as their jobs require them to work night, flex, extended, or rotating shifts," the authors note. "Shift workers are more commonly men, minorities, and individuals with lower educational attainment and typically work in hospital settings, production, or shipping industries".

The perils of shift work

The study revolved around data obtained from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW), which was conducted between 2008 and 2012. The survey examines the health of citizens and includes both home-based and clinic-based interviews, as well as examinations by clinicians. Over 1,500 people took part in the study, with things such as body mass index used to determine obesity levels, whilst diabetes (type 2) was evaluated using physician diagnosis during the physical examination.

The data revealed that shift workers were around 13.2 percent more likely to be overweight than their peers in 9-5 work. They were also 7.3 percent more likely to suffer from insomnia, 10.1 percent more likely to suffer from a lack of sleep, and 7.4 percent more likely to be drowsy during the day.

I’ve written a few times previously about the impact poor sleep has on us during our waking hours, including not only poor productivity but also poor metabolic health. The study therefore makes the connection between shift working and health disparities in society. The authors suggest, for instance, that poor sleep quality can be linked with higher rates of both obesity and diabetes.

Whilst this difference cannot solely be pinned on shift working, the connection does appear strong enough to merit considerable concern, both among shift workers themselves and those with an interest in the health of the nation. As the study drew on such a large sample of the general population, it’s believed to be robust enough to stand scrutiny.

"This study adds to a growing body of literature calling attention to the metabolic health burden commonly experienced by shift workers and suggests that obtaining sufficient sleep could lessen this burden. More research in this area could inform workplace wellness or healthcare provider interventions on the role of sleep in addressing shift worker health disparities," the authors conclude.

As for the solution to the problem, unfortunately that isn’t something that the authors considered. The findings add to the growing volume of studies showing the health risks of shift work, however, and will hopefully contribute to modifications to our working habits to ensure that all employees have equal health opportunities in life.

See also: How to Stay Healthy on the Night Shift

If you work unsociable shifts yourself, I’d love to hear your feedback on these findings. Do you do anything to try and mitigate the risks? Are you concerned about the potential health risks of your work patterns? Let me know in the comments below.

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