Should I Worry About Shift Work?
Yes – even if you’re not doing it. About a quarter of Americans perform shift work – which means that few families are unaffected by the physical, mental and social effects of working when we should rest. And that does not include encroachment of “stealth” shift work – the many hours people are working late in the night that are not “on the clock.”
What Are the Health Effects of Shift Work?
Humans are built to move in the daytime and sleep in the night. Shiftworkers famously get:
More Ulcers and GI Illness
More High Blood Pressure and Heart Attacks
More Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome
More Reproductive Problems
More Breast Cancer
Worse Sleep – including long after they quit shiftworking
Many researchers also think shiftworkers are much more easily depressed.
And now a new study is arguing that shift work makes thinking decline – markedly.
What Do Work Shifts Do To Cognition?
Nothing good. The most recent study looked at 3200 French men and women. Aged 32, 42, 52 and 62 at the study’s beginning, they were followed up five and ten years afterward. A bit less than half had done shift work; the other half had not.
Those who did work shifts did worse. If they had worked some versions of shift work for ten years or more, they tested about 6.5 years older than those who had not done shifts. Once they quit working shifts their mental sharpness returned – after about five years.
Shift work made brains look cognitively a whole lot older. However, given enough time away from shifts, people seemed to have recovered most of the types of cognitive function tested.
Physical health – well, that’s another story.
Why Is This Of Particular Concern Now?
People are doing lots of shift work – even if it does not show up in the statistics.
Many of them are working two, three, four or more part time jobs to make ends meet. Many employers in the US and elsewhere are not interested in providing full time employment. They argue the costs in benefits – particularly health care – are too high.
The irony is that the health of those workers suffers quite a lot, which then becomes a larger burden to everyone else.
People doing three part time jobs are often told they must come to work “when required.” That means they can’t plan much of their days, particularly around child care. So what happens to under and unsupervised children?
Next comes the costs and commuting time of transportation. Trying to take care of kids and juggle three jobs is difficult enough. But try doing it with “mass transit” schedules. The costs – in time and money – of commuting to multiple jobs are very high, and underreported.
The end result is lots of part-time workers are doing multiple shifts which make them 1. More prone to illness and exhaustion 2. Less capable of thinking straight – and more capable of mistakes 3. More liable to accidents and falls – including transport accidents involving others 4. Far more susceptible to family tension and break-ups.
That’s not all. Plenty of full time workers are now finding “full time” includes the entire 24 hours day.
Stealth Shift Work
Many job schedules today are nothing close to the traditional 9-5.
With the rise of knowledge industries has come an increase in the pace of cognitively challenging work. Project engineers putting up newly rising buildings are working till midnight or one, before showing up “to the job” at 7 AM. Nurses meant to do twelve hour shifts are actually – because of increased “paperwork” created by electronic medical records and other “time savers” – working 13-14 hour shifts, with their commuting time not computed when considering when they return. Buyers at department stores find they are talking to suppliers in China at 3 A.M. Executives trying to prove their mettle fire off emails to underlings at 4 in the morning. Office workers find their supervisors sending them text messages at 2 AM because they “just thought of something” that must be done now or before the start of work tomorrow. People “on vacation” find they are getting regular text messages about the job while moving through highly inconvenient time zones.
Add next the effects of social media. Many women and men appreciate receiving a “romantic note” in the middle of the night. Teenagers routinely text all through the night.
Globalisation, social media, cheap and constantly on communications mean that shift work is coming, unannounced, to more and more who don’t think of themselves as performing “shifts.”
The Body as Machine
Twenty four body clocks matter a lot. Violate them and you more than increase your chance of sickness, obesity, and death. You also make your self less productive and effective.
And not just at work. Sleep deprived, time repressed workers are not the best husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. They don’t think as well intellectually or emotionally.
So body clocks count. And as we work more and more with machines – especially “smart” machines – we often try to become more machine-like ourselves.
That’s a failing strategy. Real health – physical, mental, social and spiritual health – works on innate, evolutionary established biological time. For people there are times to rest and times to work, just as their times to reap and sow.
You don’t want to be a machine – especially a machine with a messed up internal timer.
Can individuals resist the demands of work, child rearing and social life than can turn us all into shiftworkers? Only if they recognize the importance of time itself. As the Romans said, time rules life.
In a period of great consumer options, time – normal biological time – is becoming one of life’s great luxuries.