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Shift Work

Shift work (working hours outside the traditional work schedule) and rotating shifts place a great deal of stress (both physical and mental) on the worker. Shift work disrupts the 24-hour “circadian” rhythm that regulates all body functions.


Health effects of shift work

Shift work can cause a variety of health problems:

  • Disturbed sleep: Many workers have difficulties maintaining sleep after the night (graveyard) shift and going to sleep before the morning shift. Shift workers may also suffer more fatigue than do day workers. Being overly tired makes it difficult to concentrate, which increases the possibility of errors or injuries. This can be a risk both to the worker and to the public. 

  • Interference with social and family life: Shift work can disrupt family and social life, resulting in psychological harm to the worker. 

  • Behavioral effects: There is more use of alcohol, coffee and tobacco among shift workers. The stress of shift work can cause irritability, nervousness and bad tempers, and may play a role in causing ulcers and heart disease. 

  • Digestive problems: Some research has suggested that shift workers have more upset stomachs, constipation and stomach ulcers than day workers do. 

  • Heart problems also have been noted more often among shift workers than day workers.

Rotating shifts

There are ways to make rotating shifts less harmful. Because of the human body’s natural “biological clock” or “circadian rhythms,” the least disruptive is to change to the next later shift after a day or two off. In other words, a day-afternoon-night shift rotation is better than a day-night-afternoon rotation. A fast rotation (every two days, for example) should be avoided because it does not allow enough time to get used to night work.

Even where shift rotations are properly scheduled, prolonged shift work can place great strain on personal relationships for workers whose waking and working hours are “out of synch” with those of their family and friends. In addition, shift workers may find that the quality of time that they spend with family and friends is unsatisfying because the worker’s fatigue (from poor sleep or lack of sleep) prevents normal social activity. Some workers just never adjust to shift work. Whenever possible, working the night shift should be voluntary and/or include provisions for employees who simply cannot adjust.


Improving shift work schedules

Minimize a permanent (fixed or non-rotating) night shift. Most workers never get used to night shift because they go back to a daytime schedule on their days off. Also, some workers on fixed night shifts lose contact with the rest of the workers in the organization.

  • Keep consecutive night shifts to a minimum. 

  • Avoid quick shift changes. Some researchers suggest that 48 hours should be the minimum between shifts. 

  • Schedule as many weekends off as possible. 

  • Avoid several days of work followed by four- to seven-day “mini- vacations.” 

  • Keep long work shifts and overtime to a minimum. 

  • Consider different lengths for shifts. Heavier, more boring work should be done during shorter shifts and lighter, more interesting work should be moved to longer shifts. 

  • Flextime can be useful for those with child care needs or a long commute time. Start and end times can be moved away from rush hour. 

  • Keep the schedules regular and predictable. Workers should know their schedule well ahead of time, so they can plan their rest, child care and contact with family and friends. 

  • Provide enough rest breaks for jobs requiring repetitive physical work. 

  • Brief rest breaks each hour seem to be the best for recovery from muscle fatigue.

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