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Did You Know Shift Work is a Risk Factor for Many Medical Conditions?
Shift Work Becoming More Common
In the days before electricity, people used to go to bed when the sun sent down. They then got up with the sun. Their bodies followed what we call circadian rhythms, the natural rhythms of the earth. Moving to the present, this natural rhythm has changed dramatically.
Shift work has become increasingly common in our modern society as companies attempt to compete with global competitors by working harder and with fewer resources. A 2003 study by Statistics Canada indicated that approximately 30% of workers were involved in shift work of some kind. With recent changes to 24-7 store hours, these figures may even be higher now.
Emergency Workers Work the Shifts
Retail Moves to 24 Hour Schdule
Service Organizations, Customer Service and Manufacturing Use Shift Work
Organizations that commonly hire shift workers are those that operate all night long to offer a necessary service. This includes care giving institutions such as hospitals, care centres, group homes and prisons. Ambulance drivers and police officers also fall into this type of work, because it takes care of individuals who must be watched on a 24-7 basis.
Other places that hire shift workers are companies that wish to provide a 24-hour service for their customer. In the last couple of years, this has become a increasing trend in North America. Walmart was one of the first to offer all- night service, in an attempt to reach the consumer wherever he wants to shop. These type of hours also work to service other shift workers who may not be able to shop during regular hours.
Finally, a third group that requires shift work are production crews. Companies such as steel companies, textile plants and automotive manufacturers hire workers to work all night, in order to produce as much product as they can in an 24 hour period. Shift work is justified for the bottom line. This is a mentality that see workers as "inputs" that can be manipulated as required to meet their production goals.
Medical Studies Show Shift Work is A Risk Factor
Working different shifts is a risk factor in assessing the likelihood of certain medical conditions. A risk factor simply means that it could contribute to an illness or condition happening, but it won't necessarily do so.
Other examples of risk factors toward medical conditions include genetic makeup, diet choices and body type. Shift work has been cited as a being a possible risk factor towards the following diseases and conditions in some of the following diseases:
- coronary heart disease in women
- breast cancer in women
- metabolic syndrome in women
- high blood pressure in Japanese men
- major depressive disorder
- cancer in general
- weight gain
Symptoms of Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder
The problem with shift work is that there is often a lack of sleep, due to shifts that require a person to stay up beyond their normal circadian rhythms(what the body wants to stay up on its own.) Doctors now recognize this lack of proper sleep specifically as Shift Work Sleep Disorder: a circadian rhythm sleep disorder which affects people who change their sleep frequently or work long-term unusual hours. Medical problems from this condition are hard on the body, and some of the following may occur:
- An overall lack of sleep long-term
- A general drowsiness during the day
- A lack of melatonin from not getting enough sleep
- A lack of Vitamin D from lack of sunlight
- A disrupted sleep pattern resulting in fatigue
- A compromised immune system from irregular and lowered levels of rest
- Psychological uncomfort from lack of routine and structure
- A alienation from the rest of society due to a different schedule
- Disturbances in family life and other relationships
More Helpful Resources
- How To Survive Shift Work
Shift work is becoming more and more common in our society. Here a few tips for surviving shift work, written by the wife of a man who's worked them for 25 years.
- Circadian Rhythm Disorders
You do have rhythm - I don't care what your mother says! Circadian Rhythm is your body's natural time clock. We all have it. Does your body know what time it is? Or is your clock confused? Find out how to tell - and what you can do about it.
- Sleep Talking
A great resource on why sleep talking occurs and what to do if it happens frequently to you or someone you love.
Growing Recognition of the Problems with Shift Work
Even though shift work is well-recognized as being a risk factor for various conditions, there are few movements to make it stop. Instead, we see the advancement of 24-hour Walmarts and other store. As manufacturing is forced to compete globally against lower wages in other countries, it is unlikely they will adopt a policy that would result in decreased productivity.
A 2011 study done by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine stated that there are treatments available to help shift workers cope with their ailment, including prescription and non-prescription therapies, as well as behaviour modification. Exercise and light treatment are also mentioned. Whatever the worker does, it is important to recognize that working unusual hours is not the best for the body and must be accommodated and compensated for. If problems persist, it is good to talk to their doctor.
For more information written by the wife of a shift worker, see this article for Ten Tips For Surviving Shift Work. Another excellent article comes from the medical site, WebMD.