New Survey Highlights Physical and Emotional Toll of Working Night Shifts and Other Non-Traditional Hours

Sept. 11, 2014
Our 24/7 society means that some people have to work while the rest of us are sleeping, but at what cost to their health and well-being?

New survey results released by Men's Health Network and Cephalon, Inc. found that shift workers, people who work non-traditional hours such as overnight shifts, report that these shifts can negatively impact their health, work and well-being. The survey revealed that the majority of shift workers (79 percent) believe that they are negatively impacted by their shift work and report issues associated with work productivity, negative emotions, concern about sex life and decreased time spent with family. Nevertheless, of the 52 percent of shift workers who want a change in job or hours, most don't think it will be possible in the near future, and 44 percent feel that they will have the same job until they retire.

"At least 15 million Americans perform some type of shift work, including nurses, firefighters, factory workers, emergency medical services staff and IT professionals," explains Scott Williams, vice president of Men's Health Network. "Our survey underscores both the issues that impact people who work in these industries and their general dissatisfaction with their hours."

The survey results suggested an impact of shift work on people's work productivity, with one in three shift workers reporting having missed work altogether at least once in the past year because they were too tired. And three in 10 surveyed (29 percent) said that they have dozed off at work in the past month, most of them multiple times, with another 37 percent saying they've come close. Still, more people surveyed are worried about job security than their own safety.

"The recent incidents with air traffic controllers falling asleep while on the clock have helped to highlight the impact of working night shifts and sleepiness on the job," Williams says. "With increased awareness of the issues associated with shift work, we hope that such incidents will become fewer and farther between."

In terms of emotional and psychological impact, more than half surveyed reported feeling frustrated (51 percent) and drained (51 percent) in the last week, with many others reporting irritability (42 percent), anxiety (36 percent) and anger (32 percent). Survey respondents also report daily concern for their energy level (47 percent), weight (43 percent), and their sex lives (30 percent). The average shift worker has not had a meal with their family in two weeks or exercised in 24 days.

"While the physical and emotional toll that shift workers are reporting is certainly of great concern, to me the most alarming finding of the survey is that a great majority of shift worker respondents (72 percent) seem to think that being tired is "just a part of the job" and do not consider speaking with their physician about their symptoms," said Jean J.E. Bonhomme, MD, MPH, spokesperson for Men's Health Network and Cephalon. "What we know is that people who work non-traditional hours may be suffering from a real medical condition called shift work disorder. This can be diagnosed and the symptoms can be treated by a doctor, if only they mention issues caused by their work schedule during visits to their healthcare professional."

Shift work disorder is a recognized medical condition that occurs when an individual's internal sleep-wake clock is not in sync with their work schedule. Because of this disruption in the body?s natural rhythm, people with shift work disorder may struggle to stay awake during their working hours, known as excessive sleepiness, or have trouble sleeping during their sleeping hours, known as insomnia, or both.

Experts estimate that up to 25 percent of night or rotating shift workers have shift work disorder, which has potential consequences including decreased productivity and trouble focusing, and increased susceptibility to intestinal and heart diseases. However, the majority of shift workers surveyed (61 percent) said that they would sooner check in with a doctor about a cold or flu than if they were tired for three months or longer.

"It is easy to ignore the overall health impact of our work schedules, but it's so important that people experiencing excessive sleepiness or insomnia or both take the time to see a doctor and mention that they work nontraditional shifts," iterates Dr. Bonhomme. "Very often shift work disorder goes undiagnosed because either the physician or the patient is not making the connections between the symptoms, work schedule and condition."

The survey also found that:

  • Most shift workers feel behind in their daily responsibilities (55%) and in planning for the future (67 percent).
  • A majority of shift workers (60 percent) report being left off the invitation list for social events such as birthday parties and weddings.
  • It's not just men who are impacted by shift work. More women (47 percent) than men (36 percent) who work non-traditional shifts are dissatisfied with their schedules and report negative emotions and psychological effects such as frustration (59 percent vs. 44 percent), irritability (50 percent vs. 35 percent) and anxiety (41 percent vs. 31 percent).

"Having worked rotating shifts for a long time, this survey validates what my coworkers and I experience as shift workers – both physically and emotionally – but don't necessarily talk about," said Roger Greer, a water utility plant worker who works night shifts, and spokesperson for Cephalon. "It wasn?t until I had trouble concentrating and staying awake at work that I decided to talk to my physician. I would urge people who work non-traditional hours to clearly communicate with your family, your friends and your doctor."