Shift Work Places Millions of Americans at Risk for Health Issues

Non-traditional working hours disrupt body’s natural circadian cycles

DAYTON, Ohio (February 15, 2016) – In an effort to meet the demands of a 24-hour economy, America has become increasingly dependent upon shift workers, placing millions of Americans at risk for serious health issues, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) Off Site Icon .

Anyone who works outside the traditional 9 am to 5 pm workday is considered a shift worker. Those who engage in shift work are often forced to stay awake and go to sleep during times that are contrary to their body’s internal clock, otherwise known as its circadian cycle. This unnatural shift in the body’s rhythm has inherent risks to the individual and the work that they are performing.

According to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, shift workers are at an increased risk for a variety of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and gastrointestinal diseases. About 10 percent of those who work shift hours will also develop Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD), which is characterized by excessive sleepiness while awake and the inability to fall asleep when needed.

Mark Ringle, MD, a primary care physician with Beavercreek Family Physicians, says society has redefined shift work in the past couple of decades, making the issue more complicated to address.

“It used to be there were people who worked first, second or third shift and stayed on that shift on a regular basis,” says Dr. Ringle, who practices with Premier HealthNet. “But the opportunity for shift work is a lot greater than it used to be and people are taking advantage of it. Some people are shifting back and forth between shifts, such as from first to third shift and some people are working odd shift hours that may start at 3 or 4 am Our bodies were never designed to do that.”

Those who think the effects of shift work only impact the individual doing the job should think again. According to the NSF, the effects of shift work on Americans cost the country billions of dollars each year and are the cause for thousands of deaths. Some of the most notorious catastrophes – such as the failed Space Shuttle Columbia mission and the crash of the Exxon Valdez – have been attributed to human fatigue, the NSF says.

“The problem is that most of the people who have the greatest fluctuation in work schedules are those who hold very important professions,” Dr. Ringle says. “These include jobs such as police officers, health care workers, pilots and those in the service industry.”

Shift work is still a viable option for many Americans, and may be adjusted to successfully if they take the right steps, says Dr. Ringle. 

Mimic body’s natural rhythm – Set specific wake and sleep hours that work well with your shift. The NSF recommends adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each day and that shouldn’t change for shift workers. Create a sleep environment that feels like it would at night. This means a room that is dark, quiet and has as little disruption as possible from the outside world.

Let light reflect your schedule – Keep work environments as bright as possible during the night. It will be difficult to stay alert when working in dim surroundings at night. Likewise, keep light as limited as possible during the day. Wear sunglasses on the way home and keep shades closed once you get there.

Use stimulants wisely – Caffeine can be helpful in preparing for a night shift, but be careful not to drink it within four hours of your scheduled sleep time. Therefore, if your bedtime is 6 am don’t drink coffee around 4 am. 

Ease into shifts – Shift work also includes individuals who may work at night for a couple of days and then switch back to day hours. This can especially tricky and requires careful planning. Dr. Ringle suggests that individuals plan a two-day break between such radical shift changes. This will help their body ease into the change.

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