Coping with Shift-work

Shireen Ratna Stephen

Published on

Shiftwork refers to a job schedule in which employees work hours other than the standard hours of 8 am to 5 pm. Millions of people are considered shiftworkers, including doctors and nurses, pilots, bridge-builders, police officers, customer service representatives, commercial drivers and more recently, BPO and IT/ITES employees. 

While the image of women as home makers is less common now than in previous decades, there is very little change in the domestic responsibilities of women.  Women still tend to be responsible for most of the traditional housework.  Working women generally face a difficult balancing act.  When shiftwork is added to the mix it only adds to the problem.  In fact, shiftworking women actually spend more time doing housework than day workers – probably at the expense of their social and personal lives.  For shiftworkers who are mothers, parental responsibilities often clash with their own body clocks.  This results in mothers feeding children and getting them off to school when their own internal biological clocks are set for periods of sleep.

Shiftwork affects our health, sleep and eating habits by changing our body rhythm. We are naturally tuned to sleeping at night and staying awake during the day. However, when we work at odd hours, we find ourselves functioning at a completely different time zone than what our body is used to. This can lead to not only sleep disturbances but also psychosomatic troubles, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular diseases, fatigue, reduced cognitive functioning, increased irritability and mood swings, increased intake of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, weakened work performance, more accidents at work and increased relationship issues with family members.

Women who work on shifts have several gender-specific physiological health concerns such as developing menstrual cycle irregularities, problems with reproductive health and breast cancer. Shiftwork, especially fixed night work, is associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes such as premature births, miscarriages and low birth weight. Women who work on shifts are at a higher risk of heart attacks, obesity and cholesterol and may have higher blood pressure than men. Women who work on shifts tend to exhibit more emotional problems, use more sleeping pills and are more prone to depression than men.

The best way of dealing with the effects of shifts is for women to avoid night shifts altogether. However, since this is an unlikely scenario, the next best way of dealing with this is to learn how to cope better. Here are a few pointers.

Relax! Relaxing before bed time, taking a walk or reading a newspaper, meditating, praying, reading, taking a bath, or watching television (non-violent shows) – all these are good ways of relaxing and getting rid of work-time stresses.

Exercise.  As exercising is alerting and raises the body temperature, it should not be done too close to bedtime.  Timing of exercise is important.  Twenty minutes of aerobic exercise before work will help a worker wake up and keep the heart in shape.  Early morning exercise is good for day shift, afternoon exercise is good for evening shift, and early evening exercise is good for night shift.

There are several steps a shiftworker can take to successfully fall asleep and stay asleep.  The key is to make sleep a priority.  Some coping strategies for better sleep are:-

Maintaining Bedtime Rituals.  Going to sleep as soon as possible, keeping to the same bedtime and wake time schedule (even on weekends), keeping to a regular sleep pattern and keeping a sleep diary may help a shiftworker to sleep better.  Some bedtime rituals may include taking a warm bath, lowering the room temperature to improve sleep and reading a book that does not “activate” the brain. Beds should be used only for sleep. Having good ventilation in the bedroom, using a suitable pillow and not using too many or too few blankets may further help achieve good sleep.

Napping.  Shiftworkers frequently nap, especially when working night shift.  Added to regular sleep, a short afternoon or evening nap will help fight sleepiness during the night.  However, making sure that the nap is not long enough to replace regular sleep is important.

Light and Sound.  Darkening the bedroom and bathroom, installing light blocking and sound absorbing curtains or shades and wearing eyes shades are some of the ways to block out light and simulate a night time atmosphere in the bedroom.  If day time noises are too loud, wearing ear plugs, unplugging the phone, listening to relaxing music and installing double-pane windows in the bedroom might help.

Diet.  Sticking to a diet along with exercise helps an individual to stay physically fit.  This means avoiding fatty and sugary foods, eating a light snack that is high in calcium and proteins before bed time, eating lighter meals in the middle of the night (helps reduce stomach upsets) and not going to bed too full or too hungry.

Beverages.  As caffeine interferes with sleep and makes sleep lighter and less satisfying, drinking caffeinated beverages before the shift or early and avoiding coffee late in the shift or at least four to five hours before the end of the shift may help with better sleep. Alcoholic beverages after work may disturb sleep but one or two alcoholic drinks per day taken with food is alright for relaxation and to be social. Alcohol should be avoided one or two hours before sleep.

Drugs.  Amphetamines, Diet Pills, “Uppers” are very strong stimulants that increase alertness and can eliminate sleep all together.  Frequent use of these drugs produces extreme nervousness and mood changes while performance actually becomes worse.  Nonprescription sleeping pills are fairly long acting and may make the user feel drowsy after waking up.  If they are used too often their effect expires. Prescription sleeping pills work to help a person fall asleep and stay asleep.  Regular use has the potential to cause dependency.

It should be noted that approaching shiftwork from a coping perspective may not eliminate the effects of shiftwork – only reduce them. If you are finding it difficult to cope with shiftwork, do reach out to your manager, a friend, a family member, a doctor or counsellor. Sometimes, a sympathetic ear is all it takes to alleviate some of the symptoms!