In the U.S., about 8.6 million people perform shift work, whether they have
a night job or rotate shifts during the week. For many, it's a rite of passage
in their careers; for others, it's a financial necessity. But there's a growing
sense that shift work could be taking a serious toll on their health.
"There is strong evidence that shift work is related to a number of serious
health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity," says
Frank Scheer PhD, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and
Women's Hospital in Boston. "These differences we're seeing can't just be
explained by lifestyle or socioeconomic status."
Brian Cyphers has always had trouble falling asleep at a "normal" hour. A few years ago, when the 24-year-old Chicagoan was dozing off between 3 and 5 in the morning and had to wake up at 6:30 to get to his job as a data entry clerk at a lab, he knew it was time to seek help.
Cyphers sought assistance from Lisa Shives, MD, medical director of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Ill., and a specialist in sleep disorders. Shives frequently sees patients who want to alter their night owl ways. "People...
Shift work is also linked to stomach problems and ulcers, depression, and an
increased risk of accidents or injury.
The Many Faces of Shift Workers
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a shift worker is not just
someone who works nights, but anyone who works outside a steady 9 to 5
The millions of shift workers in the U.S. include police officers,
firefighters, nurses, doctors, pilots, waitresses, truck drivers, and many more
professionals. Even a personal trainer who works out at the gym with clients in
the early mornings and evenings is a shift worker.
As shift work has become more widespread in the U.S., the health risks have
become a focus both for researchers and for the businesses that employ shift
workers. How serious are those dangers -- and can they be reduced?
Unfortunately, we don't have all the answers yet.
How Does Shift Work Affect Us?
Experts say that shift work could have a serious impact on our health in at
least two ways. Some of it may have to do with the lifestyle that shift work
encourages. The rest has to do with our biology.
In terms of lifestyle, working odd hours leads to some obvious problems.
People who do shift work tend to have sleep disturbances and sleep loss. They
might feel isolated, since their jobs cut them off from their friends and
families. They might find it harder to exercise regularly, and may be prone to
eat junk food out of a handy vending machine, says Scheer.