Working hours other than Monday through Friday from 9 am – 5 pm on shift work means greater flexibility for workers and for employers. Shift work can be very convenient for parents as it means they can work rosters that allow at least one of them to be at home when the children are. To employers, shift work means staying competitive, especially in an increasingly global marketplace.
But there is a down side to shift work if night shifts are worked. Shift work is often associated with sleep deprivation leading to an increased likelihood of human error and decreased productivity. The reason for this is simple: many key bodily functions take place according to a natural cycle and any disruption to this natural cycle can throw the bodily systems out of balance.
This natural cycle is commonly known as the Circadian rhythm. In human beings this natural rhythm is responsible for signaling when the body should wake and when it should sleep. It signals these actions by releasing and withholding various hormones and neurotransmitters. When sleep patterns are disrupted, as they are when a person working the night shift sleeps during the day, lower quality or fewer hours of sleep are likely consequences.
Typical symptoms of sleep deprivation include a diminished ability to concentrate or to focus on the task at hand. Insomnia can also cause irritability or feelings of tenseness and inability to cope or even clinical depression.
When employees experience these symptoms while at work, it’s no wonder there’s a higher likelihood of mistakes, accidents and injuries and even fatalities. Besides sleep deprivation those involved in shift work also tend to have more gastrointestinal problems, more trouble blood pressure problems and a greater likelihood of developing other sleep disorders.
Many people work nights on shift work. Health care professionals and in those involved in law enforcement may be on duty any time during the day or night. Those working in mines, factories, customer service, as well as those in transportation from taxi drivers and dispatchers to airline pilots and controllers must also be available for work around the clock, every day, including week-ends.
If you are involved with shift work, there are measures you can take to help yourself to adjust. The most important is to ensure your sleep area is dark and quiet. Darkness releases melatonin, a hormone that plays a pivotal role in the Circadian rhythm because its job is to initiate sleep. It’s also important to get an adequate amount of sleep, 8 hours if possible.
Don’t drink caffeinated beverages for several hours prior to sleep, either. You might even ask your employer about the possibility of taking a brief nap during work hours. You should also try to take a nap during the day.
Another thing that is useful is to ensure your sleeping environment is dark. If your night time shift work allows you to work in a brightly lit environment that is also very helpful. It isn’t always possible of course.