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Working late nights? It could be detrimental to your health

Work Life
 Employees on a night shift at Standard Media Group. [Patrick Vidija, Standard]

If you work at night, you are most likely going to compromise your health. Your brain could thrust into foreign territories that might affect the functioning of your body.

Shift work - any type of work that does not conform to the typical workday pattern and that has workers labouring into the night - could lead to disorders such as heart attack, according to medical experts.

Where workers have to keep adapting to different shifts, sometimes doing day and night when asked to, it could even be worse.

Shift work can also be defined as a working-time arrangement in which the working hours are successive to each other so that they exceed those of the individual workers.

There are many typical work schedules or shift work.

They include fixed evenings, fixed nights, irregular shifts and rotating shifts, which define research in the National Library of Medicine.

Futurity, a non-profit site which features discoveries by scientists at top research universities, indicates that 20 per cent of the world population does shift work.

This, it notes, could adversely hurt their health.

“Shift work, especially rotating shift work, confuses our body clocks and that has ramifications in terms of our health and well-being and connection to human disease,” says David Earnest, professor in the neuroscience and experimental therapeutics department at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine, as quoted in Futurity.

“When our internal body clocks are synchronised properly, they coordinate all our biological processes to occur at the right time of day or night.

“When our body clocks are misaligned, whether through shift work or other disruptions, that provides for changes in physiology, biochemical processes, and various behaviours.”

A study by Prof Earnest and colleagues, Neurobiology of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms, also indicated that epidemiological studies “have provided supportive evidence implicating circadian rhythm dysregulation, due to shifting work, as a risk factor for both cardio-and cerebrovascular disease”.

“Meta-analysis of cardiovascular disease in shift workers, including subjects in the Nurses Health Study and several Danish cohort studies, indicates that cardiovascular-related mortality and morbidity risk were at least 20 per cent higher in shift workers than those with no shift work experience, with a further increase in the risk of 7.1 per cent for every additional five years of exposure,” reads the research paper.

“The present study underscores the idea that shift work, independent of other lifestyle conditions such as diet, should be considered a risk factor that contributes to the overall severity of ischemic strokes occurring later in life,” write the researchers.

Brain damage

The researchers also found that animal models on rotating shift work schedules had more severe stroke outcomes, in terms of both brain damage and functional deficits than those on regular 24-hour cycles of day and night.

Males were distinguished by worse outcomes in which mortality rates were much higher.

The health impacts of shift work persist over time and, if not addressed early enough, could be fatal. “The sleep-wake cycles of subjects on shift work schedules never truly returned to normal, even after subsequent exposure to a regular schedule,” Futurity indicates.

In 2012, Ergoweb wrote that in a review of over 189 literature references, a University of Surrey (UK) study had discovered that night and extended shift workers “acquire less sleep which interferes with work productivity and promotes select health problems”, which included increased accidents, errors, obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

The Ergonomics report further said that using light treatment during the biological night can favourably impact melatonin production – a regulator of the sleep or activity cycle.

“Exercise, social cures, the timing of food ingestion, and food content are also felt to influence the circadian clock to varying degrees. Combining a low dose of melatonin, a dark room, and recumbency in the early evening prior to a night work shift would be useful in increasing a worker’s total sleep hours,” the research indicated.

“If there is a short time commitment to a night work shift, no interference with the normal body rhythms is encouraged outside of alerting stimulants such as caffeine.”

Sick leave

As such, those who are on shift work are forced to be on medication to prevent conditions that could be fatal, often beating the purpose of forcing them to be on shift work.

Research also shows that shift work has also been linked to an increased risk of sick leave.

This brings to question the intended economic benefit derived by introducing such shifts, with the labour force soon unable to continue working.

“In a systematic review of the relationship between shift work and sickness absence, a strong support for the relationship between fixed evening shifts and long sick leaves among female healthcare workers has been indicated,” reads a research article in the National Library of Medicine.

“However, there has been limited research on the extent of sickness presenteeism or reduced performance at work compared to sickness absence, even though sickness presenteeism may occur more frequently and may be much costlier than sickness absenteeism.”

Hormonal imbalance

Employees caught napping while on duty, especially during the day, might be experiencing problems with an imbalance in their hormones and may suffer serious health consequences, which may eventually be fatal.

Corporate Wellness Magazine notes that employees who are exposed to light at the start of their regular sleep hours have brains accustomed to the secretion of less melatonin, which can lengthen the time it takes for such people to start sleeping.

“This is the case for people who work night shifts and get sleep during the daytime,” it says.

Shift workers may not sleep enough during the day when they are supposed to be away from duty and resting. Apart from impacting their health, it may jeopardise their productivity.

“Timing also affects employees who are exposed to darkness during regular daytime hours (for example, people who spend excess time indoors due to depression). These individuals might not have enough light to stop melatonin secretion, and therefore they sleep excessively,” indicates the magazine.

It also says that the time shift workers’ sleep “is comparable to them sleeping in another time zone”, and it is outside “what is considered the societal norm”.

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