Updated 27 March 2014

Shift work shock

We know that shift work is bad for relationships. It emerges, now, that it's also bad for your health in many more ways.

For essential services such as hospitals, the police, paramedics and firemen, shift work has always been a reality. But in our round-the-clock world, more and more people are having to work odd hours. So when most of us finish work around five in the afternoon, thousands are just getting ready to start their working day.

The body's natural rhythm

The biggest problem shift workers face is the result of a lack of adequate sleep. They are working against the body's natural circadian rhythms. The body's internal clock is programmed to a 24-hour period that is regulated by sunlight and darkness.

  • Substance abuse – Studies have shown that certain groups of shift workers report using more alcohol, caffeine and nicotine than their daytime colleagues. Some may use both prescription and over-the-counter medications to keep them awake at night. In turn they may use sleeping pills, alcohol or barbiturates to induce sleep during the day. Shift workers may become addicted to these substances, which in turn will affect their work, sleep and general well-being.
  • Social and safety problems
    Apart from health problems shift workers also face social and safety problems.
  • Safety – One of the main problems facing shift workers is to remain awake and alert at night. They may fall asleep on the job. Working the night shift may affect performance levels, especially if the work is mentally and physically demanding. There is also an increased risk of accidents and injuries. Some types of shift work may involve working alone at night, increasing a worker's chances of becoming a crime victim.

  • Try to decrease the number of shifts you work in a row

  • Avoid working drawn out shifts and extreme overtime

  • Schedule short breaks throughout the shift

  • Exercise when you are feeling fatigued

  • Don't leave the most difficult and boring tasks for the end of your shift

  • Try to avoid long drives home - if possible, join a car pool, or use public transport

  • Try to avoid rotating shifts more than once a week

  • Make your room daytime-sleep friendly: get dark, heavy curtains or window shades to block the sunlight and decrease the room temperature. Try to insulate your windows and doors to reduce noise levels. Earplugs and eyeshades also work well. Unplug the phone or get an answering machine.

  • Create family guidelines to reduce noise and interruptions while sleeping. Hang a do-not-disturb sign on your bedroom door while sleeping.

  • Have a sleeping routine and try to stick to it - also get enough sleep on off days.

  • Stay away from caffeine five hours before going to bed

  • Choose nutritious food to eat during your shift. This should include fresh fruit and vegetables

  • Avoid eating a heavy meal before going to sleep

  • Do not exercise before sleeping as this raises body temperature, increases heart rate and energises the body

  • Develop an exercise routine that suits your needs, and try to stick to it


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