The Health Risks and Psychological Effects of Working Night Shifts

There are various reasons why people choose to do shift work; for higher pay, to accommodate other jobs, or to fit with family commitments, such as school schedules, to name just a few. With such benefits, around 4 million people in the UK have chosen shift work, making up around 14% of the total workforce.

Shift work usually means doing rather unsociable working hours, with the night shift period typically taking place between 11pm and 6am. Disruption to the body clock, poorly organised rotas or long working hours can impact physical and mental health, and can increase the risk of accidents and injuries at work.

So, just how much is working a night shift bad for your health? This article focuses on the psychological effects of working night shifts and the health risks of night shift work, along with some ways these can be combatted.



Effects and Health Risks of Working Night Shifts

When it comes to night shift effects on health, workers might experience broken sleep in the short-term which can lead to far more serious physical and mental problems if working nights for longer periods of time.

Physical Effects of Working Night Shifts

The Effect of Night Shifts on Sleep

The development of a sleep related disorder is caused by a disruption to the circadian rhythm – this makes it more prevalent amongst night shift workers as their work schedule and sleep-wake cycle overlap, causing the lines to become blurred and a disturbance in sleeping patterns. 

Getting good quality sleep is vital for our overall health, as it reduces stress, increases energy, sharpens concentration and improves our physical health. Working night shifts can interfere with this, meaning the body doesn’t have sufficient time to recharge. Not only can this impact a night shift worker’s productivity, but it can also compromise on safety and create dangerous situations, particularly if they operate heavy machinery or drive to and from their workplace. 


The Effect of Night Shifts on the Gastrointestinal System

A quality sleep cycle has been proven to help gut health and digestion – without this, gastrointestinal problems such as bowel issues, ulcers and abdominal pain can develop, leading to more serious medical conditions. 

The Effect of Night Shifts on Metabolic Disorders

Night shift working impedes the production of the leptin hormone which impacts appetite levels, metabolism and body fat. As such, this can lead to an increased risk of obesity and diabetes as blood sugar and insulin levels can’t be properly regulated.


The Effect of Night Shifts on the Cardiovascular System and Cancer

A change in sleeping habits can impact blood pressure and blood circulation, therefore increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular conditions. Heightened stress can also contribute towards this, whether that be through lack of sleep or the effects this can have on work performance. 

Research has also been conducted into the link between sleep deprivation and cancer, with results suggesting that different components of sleep, such as duration, quality and pre-existing sleep disorders, can increase the risk of certain cancer types developing. 


Psychological Effects of Working Night Shifts

The Effect of Night Shifts on Mental Health

Most of us have probably experienced a night or two of disrupted sleep in our lifetime – whether that’s following the arrival of a baby, starting university or stress during exam time. When this happens for weeks or months on end, it can affect concentration, motivation and productivity.

Studies have shown that there is a correlation between night shift and mental health, with the risk of mental health issues such as depression and mood disorders increasing for those working during the night. This can affect people in different ways and can manifest itself in negative thinking, anger or having a short fuse which can create difficult working relationships with fellow employees and team members. 

Low performance due to sleep deprivation can also lead to employees feeling as though they’ve lost their sense of purpose, causing their mental health and well-being to decline.


Ways To Combat The Effects of Working Night Shifts

Individual Steps 

As the need for night shifts isn’t diminishing, it’s important to be proactive and take a positive approach to help combat the effects of night shifts on health. This can be achieved by prioritising:

  1. Better sleep and self-care

Top tips:

  • Use blackout blinds for sleep during day
  • Stick to a consistent routine
  • Try to avoid caffeine up to 6 hours before bedtime
  • Prepare well-balanced meals ahead of time so you avoid relying on unhealthy options such as takeaways and sugary snacks 
  1. Communication

Top tips:

  • Speak with colleagues, peers, family or friends when you feel your morale is low or you are worried about your physical or mental health
  • Make time to meet up with those close to you
  • There are forums online where workers can exchange tips and techniques on how to effectively manage night shifts
  1. Exercise

Top tips:

  • Adding exercise to your day can lower your risk of depression, improve attention and benefit your mental health
  • Make time outside your working pattern to schedule in a run
  • Take a walk round your housing estate or do an exercise video when you wake up
  • Try out some yoga before you go to bed


Company Steps

Occupational Health

It’s important to address any physical or mental issues associated with night shift work as early on as possible so that they don’t escalate into major issues. That’s where occupational health (OH) can help. Many often think that involvement from Occupation Health is reserved for when something has gone wrong, but that isn’t the case. In fact, Occupational Health aims to create a healthy relationship between an employee, their well-being and the workplace by assessing risk factors and preventing work-related injuries and diseases. 

OH practitioners have the employee, their safety and well-being at the heart of their services, including health screenings, workplace assessments and night worker assessments, all of which are designed to create a secure working environment. 

Night Worker Assessments

Employers have a duty of care to offer their night workers a free health assessment conducted by a qualified health professional. If any health issues are highlighted in their assessment, according to government guidance, “the employer must offer suitable other work where possible”. 

The aim of these assessments is to check that their night shift workers’ health isn’t negatively impacted by their work, highlighting any potential physical or mental issues. This typically takes the format of a questionnaire that can be tailored to the individual needs of a business, depending on what they specialise in.

Health Surveillance 

As the name suggests, this involves observing the health of employees to ensure they stay safe in their working environment and protect them from health risks. Carried out by a qualified occupational health practitioner, the process entails a series of health surveillance checks to highlight any areas of risk. If this exposes any problems that could affect an employee’s ability to work night shifts, then the OH practitioner will provide guidance on the most appropriate steps for the employer to take to safeguard the employee and keep them safe. 

Make A Referral

As discussed in our previous blog post, if you are an employer concerned about the physical or mental health of an employee, you can submit an occupational health referral to an OH provider who can help. It is a completely confidential process whereby the OH practitioner will investigate the situation by communicating with both parties, taking into account the information on the referral form and any other medical correspondence. Based on this, recommendations can be made to improve the working environment.

For honest, impartial Occupational Health services from experienced experts you can trust, look no further than Healthier Workforce. Our network of OH practitioners operate across the UK to boost the physical and mental well-being of employees – in turn, businesses see motivation and productivity levels climb. Simply complete our quick and easy occupational health referral form so we can learn more about your business. Alternatively, you can give us a call today.