A new report published in the Journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which followed more than three thousand workers over fifteen years, has found that working an antisocial shift pattern for an extended period can have a profoundly negative impact on the brain. Although the good news is that the impairments suffered can eventually be reversed once the working pattern returns to greater regularity and comes in line with the natural body clock, this report is not great reading for those of us who regularly work overnight or other unusual shift patterns.
Dangers of the night shift
It has been shown from previous research that working night shifts, which are particularly difficult for the body to adjust to as they throw the natural circadian rhythms, can be damaging to our physical health. There is a greater prevalence of illnesses such as breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and ulcers, for example, amongst night shift workers than there is in the population at large.
The heightened likelihood of accidents at work during the night shift has also previously been highlighted as a danger to those working these hours - but the most recent report points to a newly discovered issue, related specifically to the health of the brain, and the cognitive capabilities of those working nights.
This most recent of research tested the participants on memory and speed of reaction, over the course of the fifteen year study. About half of the participants had a history of working shift patterns prior to the study, others did not. The result found that the impact of working shifts appeared to age the brain, with those who had worked ten years or more in antisocial working patterns having similar cognitive abilities as might be expected in someone six and a half years older than they are. It is known that cognitive abilities such as memory naturally decline with age, and the report appeared to demonstrate that working nights can speed this process somewhat dramatically.
The good news was that the negative consequence of working shifts can be reversed. The study found that after approximately five years of having returned to a more regular working pattern, the cognitive ability of participants had come back into line with that expected of an individual of the same age.
Impact for shift workers
Those of us who work night shifts or other irregular patterns, should heed the warnings and take as much care of our physical health as possible. Despite the issues found in the research paper, the fact is that night work is essential to the smooth running of all sorts of businesses, as well as caring professions and the emergency services, and the high levels of availability and above average hourly rates can also make it an attractive option for some workers.
Employers should offer adequate safeguards against the possible physical impacts of night working, including for example specific health assessments prior to working nights, and regularly updated health checkups as needed. Night workers are advised also to keep the sleep cycle as regular as possible, rather than changing frequently, and employers are advised to include cognitive testing in their regularly scheduled health checks to ensure any danger signs are spotted and addressed at an early stage.
If shifts are a regular part of your working life, then following the self help advice available for your particular role and industry is advisable, to ensure you are taking good care of your own well being. If you have any concerns about how your employment is impacting your health you might consider talking to your HR department or manager about your concerns - and following this research as it develops and further recommendations are made available for both employers and employees.