For many workers, night shifts are a requirement as part of their role. Some workers even prefer to work night shifts; this may better align with their lifestyle and preferred routine. ONS data shows there were 8.7 million nighttime workers in the UK in 2022, making up a significant proportion of the working population. While working nights has its pros, it is important to note that working nights does have its risks to your overall health, impacting both mental and physical health.
To raise awareness of the risks of working nights, health and safety expert David Davies from Blue Trolley has highlighted the biggest risks working nights have for worker health.
Here are the most common health risks for night shift workers and how to reduce them.
Shift-Work sleep disorder
Shift workers have a specific disorder named after their work hour patterns, as the impact of working nights is so significant. Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is common for those working nights; symptoms include both insomnia (inability to sleep) and hypersomnia (feeling excessively sleepy frequently). Sufferers of this disorder may also experience fatigue, a low mood, and headaches. It’s caused by a lack of sleep or insufficient sleep and can be treated by changes to your diet, routine, and medical intervention through therapy.
Data shows there is a link between nighttime work and obesity, which is influenced by a few different factors. Those working nights may have less access to healthy food as they are limited in their options while working. Changes to your sleep pattern also affect your appetite and can lead to poorer food choices or snacking more. Disruption to your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural clock) can also impact metabolism and make it harder to lose weight. Make sure you have access to healthy food at work; try to keep to a routine for your meals; and get regular exercise where possible to mitigate risk and improve your overall metabolism to counter the impact of poor sleep.
Your circadian rhythm has an effect on insulin levels, according to the CDC, which is linked to diabetes. Your body produces melatonin at night to help you sleep and insulin in the evening to regulate blood sugar levels. If this cycle is disturbed, it can cause hormonal shifts that affect insulin and blood sugar levels, resulting in insulin resistance. To mitigate the risk, keep a routine with meals so you aren’t causing blood sugar to spike and drop from an inconsistent diet.
Research shows those with existing high blood pressure are more likely to suffer cardiovascular diseases when working night shifts. Workers without existing medical conditions may also be at risk, as the related lifestyle factors that come with working nights have an impact on developing heart diseases. Poor diet, lack of exercise, poor sleep, and overconsumption of caffeine or smoking all contribute to poor heart health. You can reduce your risk by making healthier choices for your diet and exercise.
Depression and anxiety
If you work at night and sleep during the day, you may inevitably miss out on many social events and find it hard to make plans with friends or family. Over time, a lack of social interaction can take its toll on workers’ mental health and lead to illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Poor sleep and a bad diet additionally contribute to this decline in mental health. You should communicate with your friends and family to carve out time for social plans, keep lines of communication open and find ways to maintain important relationships when you work on different schedules. A healthy diet and exercise also play a huge role in preventing a decline in mental wellness. For more serious symptoms of anxiety or depression, you should always seek professional treatment from your doctor or an accredited therapist.
Incessant eyelid twitches can be annoying but these are usually nothing to worry about. Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep causes these muscle spasms so making changes to your routine to improve the quality of the sleep you do get will make a difference.
Common traits of neuroticism include: irritability, emotional instability, anger, depression and anxiety. This is caused by ongoing decline in mental health, leading to neurosis symptoms. Lack of structure or routine in your life could play a part in development of this disorder, which is impacted by working nights or abnormal hours. Stress from work is also a contributing factor to this illness you should be aware of. Creating healthy coping mechanisms, supported by therapy treatment from medical professionals, will help manage symptoms for sufferers. Workers experiencing these symptoms should always inform their manager and discuss reasonable adjustments for their work.
How can employers support employees?
David Davies from Blue Trolley said, “Employers play a crucial role in providing a safe and healthy work environment for night shift workers. It is proven that nighttime workers face different risks compared to their peers so measures should be implemented to reduce these risks.
”Some ways employers can support employees include: creating a rota of alternating night shifts for the team so they get a break from working nights; providing healthy food on shift for workers; offering adequate mental health resources for all staff; assessing your building lighting and making it appropriate for night workers; and doing regular check-ins with night workers to measure their mental well-being.”