Employees who work the night shift are at higher risk of a number of illnesses because working through the night alters the natural circadian rhythm (sleep and wake cycles). Studies have shown that people who work at night are at greater risk of heart disease, sleep disorders, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. With approximately a fifth of Americans working during the night shift, there is a large percentage of people who are put at risk every year. Initial belief held that it was the habits of night shift workers that led to the increased health problems, but the evidence did not support the theory. To determine the cause, researchers began looking over data from studies in 2018 to look for other ways to reduce the risks, including optimizing how shift workers sleep and what they eat. While these, along with exercise are important for everyone, sleep, diet, and exercise are adversely affected when the person’s circadian rhythm is disrupted.
Studies have found that sound sleep that lasts between 7 and 8 hours is the most effective way to lower the risks associated with late shift work. The sleep should be consecutive, not broken up over several periods. It is recommended that the sleep be in the evening, or as close to the evening as possible. If a nap is needed, it should be kept to less than 120 minutes so that the shift worker can get more sleep at one time.
The study also recommends that employers adjust the hours so that employees who work late shifts have hours that start before midnight and are done within 11 hours of their start time. This will help the employees to establish a better pattern of sleep. They also need to provide adequate time for staff to eat during their shifts. Too many employees working in the late hours miss at least one meal and end up consuming unhealthy snacks to stave off hunger. Earlier breaks are encouraged as the food consumed in early breaks provides the necessary calories to get through the rest of the day.
The absence of natural light may also be having a negative effect on shift workers. If possible, researchers encourage shift workers to get some additional daylight an hour or two before work. They should attempt to reduce how much light they are exposed to within two hours of going to sleep. This will help the shift workers’ bodies to prepare for sleep. Employers are encouraged to have high intensity lights to boost energy levels.
Some researchers suggest that employees who work at night take sleep aids to adjust their sleep cycle so that they are able to get to sleep and remain asleep longer.
For more details on the ways shift workers and their employers can reduce the health risks associated with working at night, review the information in Using the Body’s Natural Cycle to Improve Shift Workers’ Health