Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
The traditional 9-to-5 workday has become considerably more nuanced in today’s buzzing global economy.
There is a rising phenomenon of a 24/7 culture, mainly because many sectors and occupations increasingly need workers to work night shifts.
Even while it’s convenient for corporations, night shift workers pay a heavy price for their health and safety.
A new study reveals that shift workers suffer significant cognitive impairment compared to their routine day job colleagues.
The Link Between Night Shift Work and Cognitive Impairment
New and brilliant Canadian research brings to the forefront the harmful effects of night shifts on the cognitive functioning of workers.
Experts have always thought that night work harms one’s health as it has been linked to sleep loss and impaired daytime functioning. However, little has been done to elucidate its impact on cognitive functioning.
A ground-breaking study by scientists from York University, Canada, addresses this problem.
The researchers recruited over 47,000 adults from various economic sectors, including healthcare, hospitality and hoteling, construction, and airline industries.
A record of the participants’ employment history was taken and analyzed alongside the result of a series of cognitive tests they had gone through.
The study’s findings showed that one in five workers recruited for the research had worked night shifts in their respective careers.
It also revealed that individuals who worked night shifts experienced a substantial increase in cognitive impairment, including memory loss, compared to those who worked the typical 9-to-5 jobs.
Sleep experts believe a disruption to circadian rhythm is responsible for the harmful effects of night shifts, including the impairment of cognitive functions.
In corroboration, shift-work disorder – a sleep condition that primarily affects individuals who are night shift workers – is classified as a circadian rhythm disorder.
To be diagnosed with shift work disorder, patients must report symptoms that have persisted for at least one month despite seeking enough sleep each day.
What are other Health Complications of Working Nights?
Several other health risks have been linked to working nights. Some critical ones include:
1) Increased Risk of Chronic Illnesses
Several studies have indicated that individuals who work night shifts are at a higher risk of coming down with chronic medical problems like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity.
Some researchers have hypothesized that the high rates of metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity among night shift workers are due to a combination of factors, including disruptions in socio-temporal patterns, poor sleep quality and consistency, digestive disturbances, and changes in lifestyle habits like the quality and timing of meals and increased snacking.
2) Gastrointestinal Troubles
Night shift workers are more likely to experience digestive problems such as indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, and acid reflux.
According to recent research, between 20 and 75 percent of overnight shift workers and 10 to 25 percent of day employees report stomach issues after sleeping.
These are related to a misalignment of mealtimes and gastrointestinal functions governed by the circadian rhythm. These activities include the fundamental production of gastric, bile, and pancreatic fluids, intestinal motility, enzyme activity, the rate of feed absorption in the gut, and the release of hunger-related hormones.
Furthermore, due to their work schedule, night shift workers are likelier to consume lower quality and composition food, such as pre-packaged and highly processed foods.
3) Mental Health Challenges
The isolation and disruption of social life often accompany night shift work and can affect mental health.
Feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression are more common among night shift workers.
Moreover, the constant adjustment between day and night schedules can lead to chronic stress, further exacerbating mental health issues.
4) Increased Accident Risk
Night shift workers are more likely to make mistakes or be involved in road traffic accidents because of the impairment it causes to their attention and reaction speed.
These people are more likely to get involved in a car accident on the way to or from work because they are too sleepy to pay attention.
5) Family and Social Strain
The demands of night shift jobs often mean missing out on important family and social events, straining relationships, and leading to feelings of isolation.
How to Improve your Sleep If you Work Nights
Here are some tips for resting better and avoiding health problems if you work nights or early mornings.
- Balance Your Time in the Light and Dark: Experts advise that nighttime workers limit their exposure to light when they get home if they want to fall asleep quickly. This approach might include wearing blue light-blocking glasses or installing blackout shades in the bedroom.
- Don’t Skimp on Sleep on Your Days Off: Though easier said than done, try to get enough shut-eye on your free days. Maximizing your free days can help you catch up on your sleep debts and improve your health.
- Keep Your Shift Schedule Regular: You should reduce the number of days in a row that you are required to perform complex shifts. Also, you can speak to your employer to give you fewer overnight shifts or at least greater leeway in choosing when you work.
What’s the Takeaway?
While night work may be necessary in specific industries, it’s crucial to acknowledge the significant toll it takes on your health.
The disruption of circadian rhythms, sleep deprivation, increased risk of mental health issues, metabolic problems, and cardiovascular concerns are all compelling reasons to reconsider night shifts whenever possible.
If you’re currently working nights, it’s essential to prioritize your well-being by establishing a consistent sleep schedule, seeking social support, and considering alternatives that allow you to align your work with your body’s natural.
- Khan, D., Edgell, H., Rotondi, M., & Tamim, H. (2023). The association between shift work exposure and cognitive impairment among middle-aged and older adults: Results from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA). PloS One, 18(8), e0289718. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0289718
- Wickwire, E. M., Geiger-Brown, J., Scharf, S. M., & Drake, C. L. (2017). Shift Work and Shift Work Sleep Disorder: Clinical and Organizational Perspectives. Chest, 151(5), 1156–1172. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chest.2016.12.007
- Costa G. (2010). Shift work and health: current problems and preventive actions. Safety and health at work, 1(2), 112–123. https://doi.org/10.5491/SHAW.2010.1.2.112
- Lennernäs, M. A.-C., Hambraus, L., & Åkerstedt, T. (1994). Nutrient intake in day workers and shift workers. Work and Stress, 8(4), 332–342. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678379408256540
- Brown, J. P., Martin, D., Nagaria, Z., Verceles, A. C., Jobe, S. L., & Wickwire, E. M. (2020). Mental Health Consequences of Shift Work: An Updated Review. Current psychiatry reports, 22(2), 7. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-020-1131-z
- Lee, M. L., Howard, M. E., Horrey, W. J., Liang, Y., Anderson, C., Shreeve, M. S., O’Brien, C. S., & Czeisler, C. A. (2016). High risk of near-crash driving events following night-shift work. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(1), 176–181. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510383112