Six Ways Shift Work Can Affect Your Health


This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

Not everyone has a typical morning to afternoon work schedule. More than 22 million Americans have shift work jobs, including firefighters, nurses, and pilots. These professions play an important role in every community, but there are also challenges that come from working nontraditional hours, especially when it comes to sleep. Ten percent of night and rotating shift workers are thought to have a condition known as shift work disorder, which is linked to sleep issues, chronic diseases, and other illnesses.


The most common types of shift work schedules include the “2-2 3-2 2-3,” DuPont, and Pitman. Each system involves 12-hour shift schedules that alternate between day shifts and night shifts with days off in between. Although these shifts require working different parts of the 24-hour cycle, it’s still important to maintain as consistent a sleep schedule as possible, since it plays a key role in people’s health.


If you have a shift work schedule, look out for these signs that your job is affecting your sleep and wellbeing, then follow the steps below to stay on top of your health.


Sleep Challenges

Workers with rotating shifts commonly report disturbed sleep.  This includes a harder time falling asleep,  shorter stage 2 sleep and REM sleep, and shorter total sleep duration.  Shift workers also commonly struggle with insomnia.  To make it easier to fall and stay asleep after working a shift, consider using blackout curtains to keep the room dark, and white noise machines to block out any distracting daytime sounds. Relaxation exercises can also help you quiet your mind to ease the transition to sleep.



Because your body’s natural circadian rhythm produces sleep-inducing hormones at night, many people who work night shifts tend to feel sleepy, no matter how much sleep they have during the day.  At the same time, shift workers tend to experience daytime fatigue  and difficulty concentrating.  To combat these challenges, be as consistent as possible in your daytime sleep routine and aim for the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep. Avoid caffeinated beverages toward the end of your shift to help you drift off once you are home.


Injury Risk

Shift workers tend to experience drowsiness and fatigue, which can lead to more workplace injuries. In fact, those who work night and rotating shifts are almost twice as likely to be injured on the job than those working regular day shifts.  In addition to making sure you get enough sleep in your off-hours, consider taking a 20-minute power nap half-way through your shift, if possible. A brief break can restore your energy and may help prevent an accident or injury.


Type 2 Diabetes

Irregular sleep-wake cycles lead to a reduction in sleep quantity as well as sleep quality. This can weaken insulin resistance and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes in shift workers.  Workers who alternate between night and day shifts are affected by this the most. While you can’t necessarily change your schedule, you can focus on exercising and eating nutritious meals with a focus on whole foods with fewer processed sugars and fats. This will keep your energy up, while reducing some of the factors that contribute to type 2 diabetes.


Chronic Illnesses

Shift work has been linked to a number of chronic diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and metabolic syndrome.  It can also cause ulcers, gastrointestinal problems and obesity.  You can lower your risk of many of these issues simply by making sure you achieve the necessary seven to nine hours of sleep that your body requires for good health.


Mental Health Issues

Working shift schedules can cause people to become out of sync with a regular social life. Combined with lack of sleep, this can lead to mental health issues—something shift workers suffer from more than those with traditional job hours.  If you are feeling depressed, anxious, irritable or lonely, talk with a medical professional about your situation. Your doctor can suggest solutions, from lifestyle tweaks to medication, to help you feel better.