In todays busy 24 hour society there is an ever increasing demand for services, both business and pleasure, which has extended out to those employed in more traditional ‘white collar’ roles. With 1 in 5 workers in Europe working shifts which include night work and working extended hours in a bid to fulfil this need for 24 hour service it is no surprise that it is at the detriment to their health.
Working extended hours generally means working more than 48 hours within a week, whether that be day or night work.
Shift work can disrupt the body’s internal clock in much the same way as jet lag. It has also been linked to an increased risk of such severe health problems as heart problems and even some cancers.
Scientists have also now discovered that there is a connection between working shifts and a decline in brain function, particularly amongst workers whose shifts rotate between morning, afternoon and night.
During the 1990s, many changes took place in international legislation on working time. Specific measures relating to the scheduling of shifts and rest periods were introduced by the new European Directive on Working Hours (1993) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) introduced some radical new standards for working patterns. The aim was to limit working hours because long or abnormal work patterns are considered dangerous to health.
It has been reported that working a decade of shifts can age the brain by more than six years. Although this damage can be reversed, it takes 5 years after a person has stopped working shifts for their health to return to normal. Scientists have carried out a study amongst 300o French workers which revealed that those who worked rotating shifts performed significantly worse in memory and cognitive speed tests than those people who had worked regular hours. It can create problems with a a reduction in the quality and quantity of sleep with widespread complaints of fatigue, anxiety, depression and neuroticism.
On average, shift workers get two to three hours less sleep than other workers. They often sleep though the day in two split periods, a few hours in the morning and then an hour or so before going to work at night. It can be very difficult to sleep in the daytime as there is more noise, light and the temperature is higher.
It is not only the disruption to sleep patterns that is a problem. A person working night shifts also has an increased likelihood of obesity, cardiovascular disease, mood changes, gastrointestinal problems (such as constipation and stomach discomfort), and there is an increased risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer. Along with the affects shift work can have on a persons health there is also the increase in risk of motor vehicle and work related accidents and there is also an increased likelihood of family problems, including divorce.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) offers a guide ‘Managing Shift Work’ which helps improve the understanding of shift work and its potential health and safety impact. It also gives a four-fold approach towards achieving a safer and more effective working environment around the clock, which is based on the standard principles of assess, act, check and review.