How to combat the health risks of shift work

Disrupted sleep patterns and shift work can lead to problems on the job. There are steps that can minimize those risks.
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It’s no secret, sleep is vital to our ability to function. And work, impacts when and how we sleep.

Humans by nature are diurnal beings; when the sun is up, we are meant to be awake, and when the sun goes down and our surroundings get dark, our body gets ready to sleep. So, what does this mean for the millions of Canadians who work nights instead of days?

Dr. Sandra Dorman from the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health at Laurentian University studied this in-depth and found that all shift work disrupts our sleep cycles and dietary routines. The biggest health risk associated with shift work was fatigue; a major concern for workplace safety.

It all comes down to our circadian rhythm – our body’s internal clock. Our body produces hormones throughout the day in alignment with this clock, stimulating hunger and alertness when the sun is up and supressing these hormones, while producing others, like melatonin, to help us rest.

Because shift work disrupts these natural cycles, we must make a conscious effort to manage them. We need to ensure that we are still getting seven to eight hours of sleep in every 24-hour period. We also need to consume healthy food choices for most of our meals, regardless of what time of day it is.

Shift work not only affects our physical health, but it can also affect our mental health. There are increased reports of depression and anxiety disorders among shift workers, but these challenges can often stem from sleep deprivation. When we are not sleeping, our batteries are not recharging, which affects our ability to cope with the daily stressors of life.

Shift work can also affect our social health. If we are sleeping while most of our friends and family are getting together and doing things, it can lead to feelings of isolation and sadness. Getting into a healthy sleeping pattern can reduce the risk of these mental health issues. 

Young female worker in uniform

Employers can make shift work safer for everyone

Shift work is not going away, so we need to explore ways to minimize the physical and mental health hazards that come with it. As employers, here are some things you can do to help make shift work safer for everyone. 

  1. Consider how you schedule workers. In most cases, the ideal rotating schedule is days, then afternoons, and nights. It’s easier for our body to adjust to this progression than it is for us to do it the other way around. Shorter rotations – for example, three dayshifts followed by three nightshifts and then a break in the schedule – is better than going from a month of dayshifts to a month of nightshifts.  
  1. Factor in commute time and social time. When scheduling, don’t leave your workers with only enough time to sleep between shifts. If your employees have a significant commute (e.g. an hour or more), drive time needs to be built into the schedule. The same goes for social time. Often, employees are not ready to go to sleep as soon as they get home from work – especially if it’s during the day. It’s important to recognize that employees will want to spend time with friends and family before settling down to sleep in preparation for their next shift.  
  1. When possible, let employees choose their shifts. Your employees know what will work best for them at home (e.g. when they will be able to get quality sleep, how best they’ll be able to balance personal and familial obligations, etc.). Letting them choose their shifts provides a good foundation for work-life balance and will be greatly appreciated by your staff.  
  1. Provide training and information to promote good sleeping habits. We know how important quality sleep is to maintaining health. It’s a good idea to provide training and resources to your workers so that they are equipped to manage their sleep cycle and minimize the negative health effects of poor sleep. 
  1. Ensure healthy food options are available during all shifts. Except for fast-food restaurants, most places are closed at night, which limits meal options. To help workers maintain a healthy diet and promote good nutrition, consider having healthy food options available to them during their shifts, regardless of the time of day. 

Provide opportunities for socializing. Shift work can make it difficult for people to make friends and develop meaningful relationships with peers outside of work. Help your employees build a social network by proactively creating opportunities for workers to get to know each other both on the job and outside of work. 

More information

Have health and safety questions? Please contact Denise Lam, WSPS Account Manager, Small Business at [email protected]  

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.  

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