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3 Ways Shift Work is Negatively Impacting Your Health

Written by S.O.

Posted on May 29, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Nobody likes to show up for a crummy job.

Not only does an undesirable occupation cause you to loathe the time you’re actually there, but it also can consume your the thoughts when you’re not even clocked in.

But, according to two new studies focusing on the effects of sleep deprivation on shift workers, jobs with non-traditional hours can affect more than just your head.

With that in mind, let’s look three ways second and third-shift jobs can impact your health.

1. Struggling to Get To Sleep

Everybody knows that a stressful job can it make very difficult to settle down once your shift ends. But the Rand Corporation’s recent study of sleep habits of members of the military showed just how true that is.

The list of the benefits of sleep is very long, and it’s the most stressed, most overworked, and it’s those most likely to be affected by lack of sleep who need a full night of sleep the most. And yet, for people with high-stress jobs combined with long, non-traditional hours – like those engaged in military combat – getting to sleep once the battle is over can be next to impossible.

The Rand study concluded the over 60 percent of all service members fail to get the necessary allotment of sleep (for most people, between seven-to-eight hours), and this was particularly true of those stationed in conflict areas.

One of the reasons behind this was the physically demanding nature of the life of a solder. With their fidelity to the military – and its mission-before-self ethos – it’s not really all that surprising that members of the military are more likely to suffer from sleep issues. And though lack of sleep was found to be prevalent across all branches of service, it was those in – or recently returning from – combat situations that suffered the most.

Again, that’s not that surprising. However, the sheer extent of the damage to service members due to lack of sleep was shocking. According to researchers, a variety of factors (exposure to combat, threat of injury to self of others, separation from friends and family, jet lag, and the particular hours of a combat soldier) combine to make a ‘perfect storm of stressors’ – making sleep difficult. For those with a genetic predisposition to sleep disorders, the cumulative effect can be devastating.
Among those disorders are traditional insomnia, an increased chance of obstructive sleep apnea, short sleep duration, poor sleep quality, nightmares, and sleepiness and irritability during the day.

So, whether it’s the commitment to duty that keeps soldiers awake, or the aftereffects of that commitment, soldiers are not getting enough sleep.

2. Dire Immediate Health Effects

For most members of the military, their stops in the Armed Forces are but brief interludes before they leave the service and settle into a career. Though the sleeping difficulties they developed during their time in the service can follow them after their term is over (more on that later), more often shift workers will stay in trades for 10, 20, even 30 years, working the same second or third-shift job or switching from one odd shift to another with little regard to what it is doing to their bodies.

What does such a long-term commitment to disrupting one’s normal sleep pattern do to a body? A shift-worker study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, recently published in the National Sleep Foundation’s journal Sleep Health, has begun to shed some light on the topic.

Conducting a cross-sectional study on 1,600 subjects across four years, the researchers concluded that shift workers working non-traditional hours had a significantly higher BMI (body mass index) than the general population, suffered a much greater amount of sleep problems, got less overall sleep than the general population, and reported problems with “sleeplessness.”

““Alternate shift” employees are particularly vulnerable, as their jobs require them to work night, flex, extended, or rotating shifts,” read an abstract of the report. “These types of schedules are common in emergency and hospital health care settings, production, transportation, and shipping occupations.”

The report pointed out that the toll of the problems listed above is catastrophic. After just a few years of working under these non-traditional conditions, shift workers face higher rates of morbidity and early mortality, are more prone to develop a whole host of cancers, and are more likely to suffer from a range of cardiometabolic disorders – including metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, and “adverse cardiovascular events,” detailed the report.

In support of this, the researchers found that shift workers have higher levels of elevated triglycerides, cholesterol, and higher insulin resistance (which often directly leads to Type 2 diabetes) than more traditional workers.

The make matters worse, those most prone to work second and third-shift jobs were more likely to be those who can least afford to deal with the health effects of their professions.

“Shiftworkers,” the report noted, “comprise nearly 15 percent of the workforce nationwide and are more commonly men, minorities, and individuals with lower educational attainment.”

3. Deadly Long Term Effects

Whether or not one is in the military or working third shift in a factory – even for just a short time, the long-term effects seem to follow you.

As the Rand’s study on the military pointed out, once changes are made to one’s sleep schedule, many find it difficult to every get back on track – sometimes even years after one has stopped working those hours.

“Sleep problems often follow a chronic course,” said Rand researchers, “persisting long after service members return home from combat deployments, with consequences for their reintegration…”

In terms of physical long-term problems, researcher have tied a much higher rate of heart attacks and heart disease (one study pits that figure at 40-percent higher) to shift work long even after a person has stopped working those hours. Further, though this didn’t kick in until after working shift work for at least 15 years, a person’s rate of stroke rose five percent for every five years on the job – meaning a person who worked second or third shift for 30 years had a 30-percent higher risk of suffering a stoke than the general population.

Depression and mood disorders also are more common among shift workers – and the scary thing was that those rates declined only slightly the longer one stops working a non-traditional shift job. This is likely due to the body’s decreased serotonin production, which can first occur while working second-or third-shift jobs and then persist once a person has stopped that type of work.

Finally, for women working those second and third-shift jobs, there are some negative health outcomes limited exclusively to females. Two different 2007 studies concluded that women in those types of jobs have a 50-to-70 percent increased risk of developing breast cancer in their lives. Additionally, many of those same women suffer higher rates of miscarriage (as much as twice as much as women in general), are more likely to deliver premature and low-weight babies.

While it certainly is a person’s right to choose when and where he or she might work, everyone will want to give more than a passing glance to the health effects unique to those jobs. Considering the short, middle, and long-term health consequences of doing such work, it should take more than just a fat paycheck to get one to start working those kinds of jobs.


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