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The Biggest Struggle Shift Workers Are Facing Today
In today’s 24-hour society, more and more industries are having to find ways to stay open and available longer. For many companies and businesses, shift work is the answer. The appeal of round-the-clock productivity is great, but what is the toll on workers?
In North America, shift workers make up nearly 25% of the workforce. From law enforcement and safety, to transportation, to health care and emergency services, the traditional “9 to 5” is becoming less common as different industries try to meet the increased demands of 24-hour availability.
Employers have experimented with different forms of shift work; the employee could be consistently working nights for an extended period of time, they could be on a rotating schedule, or several 12-hour shifts in a row followed by a few days off. Sounds great for the employer, right? In practice, however, there is cause for concern.
How does your “body clock” respond to shift work?
Shift work impacts your circadian rhythm, commonly known as your body clock. When this clock is out of sync, your body may send signals causing you to be drowsy when you need to be awake, and signals to make you alert when you want to be asleep.
Unfortunately, research suggests that the body cannot ever fully adapt to shift work. Derk-Jan Dijk of the Surrey University Sleep Centre, explains:
“If you work away on an oil rig, and always do the same shift pattern, your body will adjust because you’ll do it for months at a time. But for nurses the problem can be moving between socially acceptable sleep/wake patterns and unacceptable patterns. Working on the night shift for four nights, and then switching back to days is not enough to shift your body clock.”
A misaligned circadian rhythm can make you susceptible to debilitating health effects, due to lack of sleep. Shift workers are also at an increased risk for chronic illness, including heart disease and gastrointestinal disease. Research is still ongoing, and it’s currently unknown if these increased risks result from shift workers being awake during traditional sleeping hours, or if it’s because they statistically get less sleep overall compared to their counterparts who have more traditional work/sleep schedules.
All of these effects put employee morale, job performance, job safety and personal health at risk. On top of disrupting one’s personal and family life, shift work has also been blamed for catastrophic accidents which impacted thousands of people. Many experts have connected shift work, sleep deprivation and human error with nuclear power plant incidents, air crashes, and more. Transportation workers are among those most at risk: drowsy driving caused by sleep deprivation is one of the leading safety hazards.
Shift Work Sleep Disorder
Sleep issues are so prevalent in shift workers that there is actually a term specific to it: Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). This is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder which usually causes insomnia, or extreme fatigue during waking hours. Treatment for SWSD is very limited; usually, pharmacological remedies are recommended, which come with their own risks. Bright light treatment has been used effectively to treat SWSD, along with melatonin supplements. Did you know we also have a Shift Work kit? Contact one of our locations for more information.
Here are some other tips we recommend for shift workers who are looking to avoid prescribed sleep aids!
Tips for Shift Workers
- If you’re able to, avoid frequently rotating shifts that go from night to day. Your body will find it easier to adjust from a day shift to a night shift, rather than the reverse.
- Maximize the influence of light on your body clock. Keep your workplace brightly lit, which will keep you more alert and wakeful.
- Similarly, prepare your body for sleep by avoiding bright light on the way home from a night shift. Wear dark sunglasses if you’re commuting after the sun comes up, and limit the number of lamps you turn on when you get home.
- Use blackout curtains in the bedroom, and a sleep mask. Keeping your bedroom as dark as possible will make it easier for your body to sleep.
Check out next week’s blog!
Next week, we’ll be talking all about light and darkness, and how they’re both crucial for a healthy circadian rhythm!