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Shift Workers Face Health Problems

At my workplace, I have a choice of hours: I can either work from 10am to 6pm, or 11am to 7pm. Either way, I know I’m only in for an eight-hour day, and I’ll be able to drop my son at daycare in the morning and be home in time to have dinner with him.

For the millions of Americans who do shift work, my work situation probably sounds like heaven - and indeed, there are plenty of negative health consequences associated with working nontraditional hours.

Shift work has its benefits, of course - it can be more convenient for child care, is often better paid, and can allow workers time for other activities like study. However, the medical and scientific communities are constantly weighing in with new evidence that shift work can increase the risk of certain health disorders and have a negative impact on the overall health of shift workers.

Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the proportion of full-time and salaried workers employed working shifts now stands at 14.8%. Of these, the most common are night shifts, with working hours usually between 2pm and midnight, as well as irregular shifts with a constantly changing schedule.

Shift workers have been found to have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Those who work rotating shifts have an increased risk of 42%. The authors of that study found that rotating shifts made it more difficult for people to get enough sleep, potentially weakening insulin resistance.

Another study found that shift work could impair cognitive function. Study participants who worked shifts scored lower in tests assessing brain power and focus than participants working traditional hours. 

Recently, a study found that female nurses working rotating shifts for five or more years were at an increased risk of all-cause mortality as well as cardiovascular disease, while another study linked working night shifts to a higher incidence of skin cancer.

There’s also the damage that shift work does to people’s natural circadian rhythms, sometimes referred to as their “body clock.” People that work shifts often experience similar symptoms to those with jet lag. These include indigestion, irritability and reduced concentration. Shift workers are prone to experiencing circadian disruption much more than most of us, who may have mild difficulties adjusting to the beginning and end of daylight savings time.

While I thank my lucky stars for my ideal work schedule, I’ll also take a moment of gratitude to the police, fire department, ambulance, hospital and other staff who work around the clock, keeping life moving - and wish them better health.

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