It has long been known that shift work, long working hours, and the graveyard shift is detrimental to a person’s health. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 15 million people work on the graveyard shift or have rotating shifts.
Graveyard shift and the body’s natural circadian rhythm
Working the midnight shift when it is dark outside, interferes with our biological circadian rhythm and and the subsequent production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced in our body and it is triggered by the dark. Melatonin causes us to get drowsy and prepare for sleep. Many people who work the graveyard shift must fight against the drowsy feeling for much of their shift. As a result, they are not as alert on the job as they should be, and this could lead to very dangerous situations from driving accidents, to accidents using heavy machinery, to making improper measurements, or poor decision making ability on the job.
Several studies have been done on the effect of the graveyard shift on various types of workers. The European Journal of Scientific Research reported the effects on nurses who had to work the graveyard shift at a Jordanian Hospital. They found that the nurses were prone to making mistakes and they were also having trouble with interpersonal relationships.
Mental health issues and the working environment
This same research revealed that nurses were dissatisfied with having to work the graveyard shift and this in turn affected the quality of their work. The nurses were also sluggish and disoriented and were not as sharp as nurses who worked during the day. These conditions could lead to very serious mistakes on the job that could put their jobs in jeopardy and affect the lives of their patients.
It is not hard to understand that a person who lacks sleep will be cranky and irritable. If it happens once or twice it may be excused, but a person who is constantly snapping, or yelling at their co-workers because they are sleep deprived, will seriously damage their working relationship with their co-workers. This crabbiness will extend to the family.
Women’s health is more at risk when working the graveyard shift
Research also shows that women are more affected by working the graveyard shift than are men. Working the graveyard shift can cause menstrual pains, low birth weight in infants. premature births, and some research is showing a connection with breast cancer. The theory is that the lower levels of melatonin produced at night causes an increase in estrogen which is implicated in certain types of breast cancer. The risk for other cancers such as intestinal cancer is present among graveyard workers, but is particularly prominent in shift workers, due to the disruption of the bodies natural circadian rhythm. The nurses on the graveyard shift were more prone to muscle pain and respiratory infections. Like other studies of this nature, they were also more prone to absenteeism. Heart disease has also been implicated in studies comparing the workers who had to change shifts with workers who had a permanent graveyard shift. No difference was found for the risk for ischemic heart disease among the two groups. In other words graveyard workers were just as much at risk for ischemic heart disease.
Mental health issues and family life
During the day the graveyard shift worker must sleep and that means he or she will not be interacting with children and other family members. This situation can lead not only a feeling of alienation by the graveyard shift worker, it might even distance him or her from the family. Imagine a two year old who is up early in the morning and in bed early at night with a parent who sleeps all day long and may or may not, even have time to share the family evening meal . Now imagine the tension in the home when the graveyard worker is yelling at the spouse to keep the child quiet because he or she must sleep. Even men report that shift work caused a lot of stress on them. Women have the added responsibility of being primary caretakers for their families and the stress level is high among them as well. Lack of sleep can lead to chronic headaches, Many graveyard and shift workers report family problems and a general feeling of not having any control over life.
Mental health issues complicated with physical ailments associated with working the graveyard shift, result in poor performance on the job, loss of wages due to absenteeism, a general malaise that affects the quality of family interaction and social relationships, and the stress of working and holding it all together.