Feb 15, 2008

Shiftwork health and safety: long-term health effects

In the long run, it is possible for a demanding work schedule to affect a person's health. However, studying health problems in workers is difficult. If possible, workers will change jobs if they think the work is making them ill. A shiftworker might change to a day job for that reason. This is called the “healthy worker” or the “survivor” effect. Workers who stay on the job are those who can “take it.” Because sick workers leave the job, it is much harder to show a relationship between job factors and poor health. Therefore, researchers have only fairly healthy shiftworkers to study.

With that in mind, it is not clear whether or not one's work schedule is the actual cause of health problems. But, workers who quit doing shiftwork often point to health problems as a major reason for quitting. Plus, a stressful schedule can combine with other factors to hurt a person's health.

If a person has other major stresses in life, such as a bad marriage or a loved one with a chronic illness, a demanding work schedule certainly won't help the situation. If a worker has poor health habits, such as using too much alcohol or tobacco, it will be more difficult to resist the stress of the work schedule. A demanding schedule also might aggravate an existing health problem.

Digestive Problems
Some research has suggested that shiftworkers have more upset stomachs, constipation, and stomach ulcers than day workers. Other research has not backed up this suggestion. But, there is always the problem of having only healthy workers to study. Digestive problems could be more common in shiftworkers because digestion follows a circadian rhythm.

Usually people eat at regular times during the day. They also eliminate waste at regular times during the day. Shiftwork can interfere with regular eating and digestive patterns by changing work and sleep times frequently. So, it is not surprising that this could lead to nausea and other stomach problems. However, digestive problems also could be caused by lack of nutritious food. For example, sometimes on night shift only junk food from vending machines is available.

Heart Disease
Heart problems also have been noted more often among shiftworkers than day workers. For example, Swedish researchers studied paper mill workers in a small town for several years. This study is especially meaningful, because the paper mill was the only employer in town. This made it difficult for the employees to stop working shifts.

Most of them had done shiftwork for most of their lives. Researchers found that the longer people worked shifts, the more likely they were to develop heart disease. However, the way in which the work schedule affects the heart is not at all clear. Work schedule stress might cause heart disease, but it is more likely a combination of stress, diet, smoking and drinking habits, other life stresses, and family history of heart disease.

It is difficult to say exactly how the work schedule fits in with all the other factors producing heart disease. Earlier we talked about several different work schedule features that could cause stress and fatigue. Right now we can only guess about which combination of those features has the most impact on a person's health. Constantly shifting from a day to a night schedule may be one of the stressful factors. But long work hours, high workloads, and irregular schedules also can play a role.

Source: Plain Language About Shiftwork (NIOSH)

Related posts:
* Night shift work raises cancer risks, or not

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