Navigating Unsocial Hours: The Health Challenges of Shift Work

Our Occupational Health Nurse, Lisa, investigates the consequences of working non-traditional hours and examines the crucial role that Occupational Health can play in supporting night shift workers, addressing their distinct challenges and enhancing their overall well-being.


Traditional working hours have evolved significantly in a world where businesses often operate around the clock. Commercial organisations, particularly those in industries demanding continuous 24/7 operation, such as steel production, have adapted to meet the demands of a globalised economy. However, this transformation comes at a cost for individuals working these unconventional hours and society.

Approximately 21% of European workers are involved in some shift work, including night shifts. This shift towards a 24-hour society challenges the natural circadian rhythms that humans have developed over millions of years. We are inherently diurnal beings, designed to be active during the day and at rest during the night, with our body functions, including temperature, blood pressure, and hormone levels, governed by these rhythms. Yet, the demands of modern life have led us to override these instincts, and the implications for shift workers and society are profound. 

Let’s analyse the impacts of non-traditional working hours on employee well-being, exploring the challenges faced by individuals with unconventional schedules and delving into potential mitigation strategies, as well as how employers and Occupational Health can help support – 

Impact on Shift Workers:
Shift workers experience disruptions across various facets of their lives, including biological rhythms, social interactions, and domestic routines. These disruptions can lead to health problems, performance impairments, and safety risks associated with shiftwork.

Shift Work and Chronic Health:
One of the more concerning aspects of shift work, particularly those involving circadian disruption, is its potential link to breast cancer. Melatonin, a hormone central to regulating the body clock, plays a role in cancer risk. Recommendations to mitigate cancer risk among night workers include limiting consecutive night shifts and promoting healthy lifestyles.

Shift Work and Metabolic Disorders:
Shift workers are more likely to develop metabolic disorders like obesity, dyslipidaemia, abnormal blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Disrupted eating habits, including consuming more energy at night, contribute to these risks. Gastrointestinal problems due to variations in digestive processes are also common. Employers can enhance the health and well-being of shift workers by offering healthy food options in vending machines and providing access to facilities for storing and reheating home-cooked meals. Hosting regular well-being days throughout the year can provide nutritional guidance as part of their well-being initiatives.

Reproductive Health:
Shift work has also shown associations with reproductive health issues, including pre-term delivery, small-for-gestational-age births, preeclampsia, and gestational hypertension. Reducing exposure to shiftwork may benefit pregnant women. Employers must conduct risk assessments for individuals who become pregnant, are breastfeeding, or have given birth within the last six months. These assessments should also be undertaken regularly as the pregnancy advances or if there are significant alterations in the individual’s work duties or work environment.

Mental Health:
Shift work can induce stress, characterised by a lack of job autonomy and social isolation. The mental health effects of shift work, particularly among female shift workers, warrant further research. Providing counselling services to assist employees can be crucial in offering support.

Safety Risks:
Fatigue and cognitive impairment significantly increase the risk of mistakes and accidents during night shifts. This risk accumulates over consecutive night shifts, underscoring the importance of limiting their number and duration. Incorporating rest breaks can help prevent risk escalation during shifts.

Health Assessment:
Night workers require regular health assessments, with ongoing checks to evaluate the severity of conditions, individual coping mechanisms, and managing health issues. 

Mitigation Strategies for Shift Workers:
For those engaged in shift work, prioritising sleep is paramount. Aiming for 7-9 hours per 24-hour period, establishing a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine, strategically napping, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and monitoring caffeine and nicotine intake are essential strategies. Suppose employees are showing any potential signs of sleep deprivation, depending on how a sleep disorder is affecting them within their role. In that case, OH can conduct a fitness-for-work assessment to ensure that appropriate measures and plans are in place to safeguard the well-being of those employees.

In summary, proactive measures are essential, while there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to the intricacies associated with shift work. To effectively address shift workers’ unique needs and challenges, employers must establish strong partnerships with occupational health professionals.

Employers can play a pivotal role in mitigating the negative impacts of shift work. Key considerations include designing work schedules that minimise circadian rhythms and sleep disruptions. Factors like minimising rapid forward rotation between shifts, providing adequate intervals between shifts, and avoiding extended night shifts should be considered. By adopting a comprehensive approach to address these issues, occupational health can significantly contribute to the overall health, safety, and well-being of those working unsocial hours.

To learn more about how Genesis can help assist with the services mentioned above, please contact us on 01387 248811 or email