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How well is your workplace managing the risks of shift work? 6 things employers can do

Tired employee working at a warehouse.

Many aspects of our lives are based on our body’s natural sleep cycle, which revolves around light. Humans are diurnal, which means when the sun is up, we are meant to be awake and doing things and when the sun goes down and our surroundings become dark, our body gets ready to sleep. So, what happens with the millions of Canadians who are working at night instead of sleeping comfortably in their beds? That is one of the questions Dr. Sandra Dorman addresses through her work with the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health at Laurentian University.  

According to Sandra, all shift work disrupts our sleep cycles and dietary routines. “In the short-term, the biggest health risk related to shift work is fatigue. We know that fatigue has been linked to workplace injuries, for the individual and their co-workers,” she says. “In the long run, we know that the connection between lack of sleep and unhealthy diets associated with shift work can also increase our risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.” 

Dr. Dorman explains that it comes down to our circadian rhythm—our body’s internal clock. Our body produces hormones throughout the day in alignment with this internal clock. At certain times of the day, our body needs those hormones to be high and at other times we need them to be low. Our natural light-induced circadian rhythm regulates these hormonal cycles. “The expectation is that you are going to be awake when the sun comes up, so that’s when our body produces hormones that stimulate hunger and alertness. When the sun goes down, that’s when our body suppresses hormones associated with digesting food and produces other hormones, like melatonin, to help us prepare for rest and sleep,” she says. 

At the same time, our home life typically revolves around the same schedule. Most activities and meals are planned between 6am-10pm. Shift work disrupts these natural cycles that our diet and social lives are built around, so we must make a conscious effort to manage them. We need to ensure that we are still getting seven to eight hours of sleep in every 24-hour period. We also need to consume healthy food choices for most of our meals, regardless of what time of day it is. If we can do these things, it will help to minimize the short- and long-term effects shift work has on our health. 

Shift work not only affects our physical health, but it can also affect our mental health. Kristy Cork, Healthy Workplaces Consultant with WSPS highlights some of the mental health hazards that are often found in workplaces where people regularly work hours outside of a standard day shift. “We see increased reports of depression and anxiety disorders among shift workers, but these challenges often stem from sleep deprivation,” says Kristy. “When we are not sleeping, our batteries are not recharging, which affects our ability to cope with the daily stressors of life.” Kristy explains that shift work can also affect our social health. If we are sleeping while most of our friends and family are getting together and doing things, it can lead to feelings of isolation. Getting into a healthy sleeping pattern can reduce the risk of these mental health issues. 

Reduce the risks with these expert tips:

Shift work is not going away, so we need to explore ways to minimize the physical and mental health hazards that come with it. As employers, here are some things you can do to help make shift work safer for everyone.

  1. Consider how you schedule workers. In most cases, the ideal rotating schedule is days, then afternoons, and nights. It’s easier for our body to adjust to this progression than it is for us to do it the other way around. Both Sandra and Kristy recommend shorter rotations. For example, three dayshifts followed by three nightshifts and then a break in the schedule is better than going from a month of dayshifts to a month of nightshifts. 

  2. Factor in commute time and social time. When scheduling, don’t assume that workers need only enough time to sleep between shifts. If your employees have a significant commute (e.g., an hour or more), drive time needs to be built into the schedule. The same goes for social time. Often, employees are not ready to go to sleep as soon as they get home from work—especially if it’s during the day. It’s important to recognize that employees will want to spend time with friends and family before settling down to sleep in preparation for their next shift. 

  3. When possible, let employees choose their shifts. They know what will work best for them at home in terms of when they will be able to get quality sleep. Letting employees choose their shifts also provides them with the flexibility needed to meet personal obligations. The ability to choose when to work provides a good foundation for work-life balance. 

  4. Provide training and information to promote good sleeping habits. We know how important quality sleep is to maintaining health. It’s a good idea to provide training and resources to your workers so that they are equipped to manage their sleep cycle and minimize the negative health effects of poor sleep.

  5. Ensure healthy food options are available during all shifts. Except for fast-food restaurants, most places are closed at night, which limits options. Sometimes even on-site cafeterias are closed during night shifts. To help workers maintain a healthy diet and promote good nutrition, it’s important that they have healthy food options available to them during their shifts, regardless of the time of day.

  6. Provide opportunities for socializing. Shift work can make it difficult for people to make friends and develop meaningful relationships with peers outside of work. One solution is to develop relationships with co-workers. Employers can proactively create opportunities for workers to get to know each other during and outside of work, which will help them build a social network. 

Visit the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health’s website for information on understanding the risks of shift work and managing fatigue. 

How WSPS can help

Connect with a WSPS consultant and look at ways to create a healthier workplace.



The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.