How Shift Work Affects Health

How Shift Work Affects Health | HealthSoul

As productivity in the global economy increases, rotating shift work is commonplace. Health care workers endure shift work regularly. However, studies show that the lack of regular sleep-wake cycles, disrupting our natural circadian rhythms, and stressing our regular daily routines has many negative health consequences. This can be especially true for night shift nurses. The following studies demonstrate the many ways shift work affects our health and plans for change.

Understanding the Problems with Shift Work

In 2010 Giovanni Costa published a study titled “Shift Work and Health: Current Problems and Preventive Actions.” In the article, Costa discusses the main problems with workers performing shift work, health consequences, and suggestions to prevent the issues.

The Jet-Lagged Body

When we don’t see enough sunlight at regular times, especially during a night shift, our Circadian Rhythm becomes disrupted. When a shift-worker continuously tries to misalign their body clock by sleeping during the day on their assigned night shift but sleeping during the night on their unassigned day, their body-clock assumes feelings of jet-lag with fatigue, insomnia, digestive trouble, irritability, poor mentation, and reduced performance. It may take the person several days to recover from each jet-lag period.

Decrease in Efficiency

Due to inefficient REM (rapid eye movement) during sleep, workers may be prone to more errors during work and when awake. Fatigue-related accidents are high due to physical and mental fog.

Health Consequences

Shift-workers are at increased risk of many psychological and physical disorders compared to non-shift workers including:

  • Increased complaints of anxiety, stress, nervousness, irritability, chronic fatigue, mood disorders, depression
  • Dependence on sedatives and hypnotic drugs
  • Digestive troubles including more snacking on poorer quality food (more fats, high carbohydrate content, and sugars), peptic ulcer disease, irritable bowel syndrome
  • Metabolic disorders, such as type 2 diabetes and increased risk factor of cardiovascular disease with higher LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol levels
  • Cancer rates including endometrium, breast, prostate, colorectal, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Menstrual irregularities and birth disruptions including pre-term birth and low-birth-weight
  • Higher rates of obesity and lower rates of exercise

How Shift Work Specifically Affects Women

In April of 2016 an Investigation was published by Céline Vetter, PhD1; Elizabeth E. Devore, ScD1; Lani R. Wegrzyn, ScD2; et al which summarized research to determine if rotating night shift work had coronary heart disease (CHD) risk associated with it amongst women. The investigators used a prospective cohort study of 189,158 initially healthy nurses and followed them for 24 years as they rotated night shift work at least three nights per month. As a result, the researchers found that if the women worked more than five years, they had a significantly increased risk of developing CHD, even when controlling for factors associated with CHD, such as obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes. The study concludes that shift workers develop CHD due to stress, sleep disruption, and social isolation.

Preventative Actions

Costa offers ideas for change to help shift workers. He suggests education and counseling for shift workers including adequately informing workers of possible adverse effects of shift work and working with management to provide a shift schedule that provides a work-life balance by giving regular shifts every week without variation in the timing so workers can take care of themselves and their families accordingly.


  • Shift Work and Health: Current Problems and Preventive Actions. Saf Health Work. 2010 Dec; 1(2): 112–123.