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Did You Know Shift Work is a Risk Factor for Many Medical Conditions?

Updated on September 17, 2015

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

Fire fighters are called to work at all  hours.
Fire fighters are called to work at all hours. | Source

Retail Moves to 24 Hour Schdule

Walmart and other stores are now open 24 hours a day.
Walmart and other stores are now open 24 hours a day. | Source

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:

Shift work also increases the likelihood of workplace injuries and fatalities (All examples stated are from medical journal studies.)


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

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.


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    • prairieprincess profile imageAUTHOR

      Sharilee Swaity 

      8 years ago from Canada

      Josh, thanks for pointing out the mistake in the link. I have now posted the correct link, which is a study that links depression to shiftwork, in nurses. There is a definite connection between shift work and various disorders. I wish you all the best in your research. My husband works shift work, and I know from experience that it is brutal, at times. Take care!

    • profile image

      Josh Amand 

      8 years ago

      Can you post the link for *major depressive disorder? When I click on it, it redirects to the *high blood pressure in Japanese men. I have been working as a meteorologist (12 hour shifts-shift work), and it has changed me mentally. I would like to learn how to mitigate that.

    • prairieprincess profile imageAUTHOR

      Sharilee Swaity 

      9 years ago from Canada

      @MsDora, I do think it's an important topic that needs to be discussed. I see it first hand in our lives and know that many others must be experiencing difficulties with it, too. I had not heard about the skin cancer. Very interesting. Thanks for adding your knowledge to the hub. Take care!

    • prairieprincess profile imageAUTHOR

      Sharilee Swaity 

      9 years ago from Canada

      @Sholland, it is very difficult when your shifts change all the time. My husband has done it for 25 years and he's still not used to it. It gets harder to get out as you get older. I know what you mean: I couldn't handle it, either. Thanks so much for coming by!

      @Melvoy, very interesting, especially that he's always tired. My husband is the same way and he works rotating shifts. Yes, it does seem especially dangerous for pilots to be working these kinds of hours, doesn't it? I had not heard about the changes in doctors' hours. That is good news! Thanks so much for your comment.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      9 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for bringing us this information. There was also talk a few years ago, that night workers suffer skin cancer because of harmful rays from continual exposure to the rays from the light bulbs.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 

      9 years ago from UK

      This is interesting. My husband is a pilot and seems to be permanently tired, especially when he is on early shifts. This is even though he rarely works right through the night as his flights are all short haul (though the hours can be long.) There have been several studies into pilot fatigue and he did take part in one. As a result of these studies the Civil Aviation Authority do vary the rules on how long pilots can work. Doctors in the UK have also seen a huge reduction in their working hours in the last decade or so, largely as a result of similar studies.

    • sholland10 profile image

      Susan Holland 

      9 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      I could not pull a 2nd or 3rd shift. I can see where all the risks factors would be created by messing up the body's natural rhythm. I feel sorry for people like police officers and firemen whose shifts change every few months. I know they love their jobs, but I do not see how they ever get back on track. Great Hub! Votes and Shares!

    • prairieprincess profile imageAUTHOR

      Sharilee Swaity 

      9 years ago from Canada

      @Pamela, yes, nurses are big time shift workers. There were a lot of nurses in the studies that I looked at for research. Yes, I've heard that some people never get used to certain shifts. Thanks for the great comment!

    • prairieprincess profile imageAUTHOR

      Sharilee Swaity 

      9 years ago from Canada

      @RHW, what a fascinating background! You are obviously a real expert in this field. I would love to hear about some of the studies you did.

      I am writing it because of a strong personal interest; my husband works shift work. He has tried melatonin but he finds it gives him a hangover so he takes a regular prescription to help him sleep. It's interesting to know the actual medical reason that this herb works for some people -- I did not understand that mechanism. Thank you so much for adding your knowledge!

      And thanks for your commendation, too. Take care!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      9 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This is an important topic. As an RN I had to do some shift work and never fared very well on the 11 PM to the 7 AM shift. You made some very good points as to how sleep affects health. Voted up and useful.

    • prairieprincess profile imageAUTHOR

      Sharilee Swaity 

      9 years ago from Canada

      @miss, thanks for stopping by and your kind comments. I will have a look at yours, too. Take care.

      @Lady E, thanks so much for stopping by. You are so right -- some people do adjust to it, but it does take work to find something that works. Thanks again!

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      9 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I have credentials in sleep medicine. We did a study for the government about shift work (well lots of them:) they were trying to Research why more accidents happen at night. It was very interesting.

      Yeah the circadian rhythm ( the natural body clock) gets thrown off when we try to change shifts and the chemicals secreted in the brain are working against us. It's our innate response to sleep when the sun goes down. It shortens the REM cycle and when the sun comes up - it stimulates the release of certain chemicals in the brain that say "time to wake up!" so night shift workers get thrown off by that. There are many things you can do to change the sleep cycle - melatonin was actually used to help with that. Many people think it's a sleeping pill and it's not! It helps change the body clock. Great hub!

    • Lady_E profile image


      9 years ago from London, UK

      It can be risky, but sometimes the body adjusts. It's good you are raising awareness - Interesting Hub.

    • MissUgly profile image


      9 years ago

      nice hub! check out mine on how to deal with shift work


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