A necessary part of some professions, shift work can disrupt your internal biological clock. The good news is that by taking small practical steps, you can enjoy your work and keep your health intact too. Shift work involves working outside the normal working hours of around 8 am to 6 pm.
"If you cannot avoid shift work, there are ways to reduce its health risks," says Dr Fong Yuke Tien, senior consultant and director of Occupational Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
Tips to better cope with shift work
- Minimise working on continuous night shifts.
Working on night shifts continuously for days and weeks in a row will change your sleep pattern and make it harder for you to get to sleep at your normal sleeping time
- Adhere to a set shift work pattern.
A set shift work pattern means working the same number of hours and at the same time. This may help the body adjust better to the new work schedule.
- Get enough rest.
Working continuously without a rest break to sleep will lead to fatigue. This will increase accident proneness and inattention. It will also lead to an increased sleep debt.
- Create a sleep-conducive environment.
Keep your bedroom quiet and dark which is more conducive to sleep.
Related article: The truth about sleep disorders
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol several hours before your scheduled bedtime.
Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that will keep you alert and prevent sleep. Shift workers who drink more than two cups of coffee and one glass of alcohol every day have poorer quality sleep than those who don't.
- Stick to a fixed sleep schedule.
Try to sleep at about the same time every day if you are on night shift to help your body adjust to a new sleep schedule.
- Bring healthy snacks to your night shift.
Eat healthy snacks such as fruits, and a diet high in vegetable content to curb your hunger. Avoid high-fat snacks, fried and spicy foods which are harder to digest at night and may cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
Related article: Smart ways to snack at the office
How shift work can lead to sleep disorders
Our body's circadian rhythm can be thought of as an internal 24-hour biological clock that regulates and synchronises our body's physiological processes according to the natural patterns of daylight and darkness.
This internal biological clock will instruct the brain to release more melatonin — a sleep-inducing hormone — when it detects less sunlight in the external environment. This is why most people feel sleepy at night.
"Shift workers work odd hours and under artificial indoor lighting. During a night shift, the body will adapt to the changed sleep wake pattern. When this pattern of wakefulness at night is persistent over days and weeks, hormonal adjustments will occur to allow us to adapt to staying awake at night and sleeping in the day," says Dr Fong.
Related article: Sleep problems: Doctor Q&A
Shift workers who experience headaches, insomnia, excessive sleepiness, and poor concentration could be suffering from shift work sleep disorder (SWSD). SWSD is caused by continuous sleep deprivation and interruption.
When work is continuous over long hours with no rest break, fatigue sets in and a sleep debt will accumulate. Such workers will be less attentive and more prone to accidents. Working with heavy machinery, fine work and work requiring high-attention span can become problematic.
Other common health risks of shift work
Beyond sleep disorders, long-term shift work disrupts the body's hormonal, digestive, metabolic, and cardiovascular systems and increases your health risks for:
- Type 2 diabetes
Your risk of developing type 2 diabetes is higher if you are a female shift worker on night shifts, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study. Women who worked the longest on night shifts (over 20 years) had a 58 per cent risk of type 2 diabetes compared to a 20 per cent risk for those who worked for three to nine years.
- Cardiovascular disorders
The stress induced by regular shift work could cause a significant rise in long-term levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in shift workers below 40 years of age. Studies show close links between high levels of cortisol and poor cardiovascular health, high blood pressure, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. The risk of heart disease among shift workers could be as high as 40 per cent.
The hormonal imbalance triggered by shift work could cause abdominal obesity. Shift work lowers the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin which means shift workers often end up feeling hungrier than usual. Unhealthy eating is another cause for obesity among shift workers.
In 2007, the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said that shift work is "probably carcinogenic to humans". It increases the risks for breast and prostate cancers among regular shift workers.
- Gastrointestinal problems
Rotating shift work can trigger digestive problems due to irregular eating patterns. Some of the symptoms include heartburn and other symptoms of gastric irritation.
"Some people prefer shift work because of its variety, flexibility, and higher pay. By making sure you have enough sleep, rest every 2 to 3 hours and exercise, you can lessen the risk of excessive fatigue that can lead to health problems," says Dr Fong.
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