Simple changes can benefit shift workers

Shift workers are at higher risk for injuries, accidents, and absenteeism, but simple work schedule changes can improve the health of these employees, according to a new review of 26 studies of shift workers, including autoworkers, nurses, and chemical plant employees.1

Two interventions were shown to have a positive impact: rotating workers through shift changes more quickly — every 3-4 days instead of every seven days — and giving employees more control over their schedules.

Companies are very resistant to addressing the needs of shift workers, according to Alec J. Davidson, PhD, an assistant professor with the Neuroscience Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. "I think that the issue is underappreciated," says Davidson. Animal research from Davidson's lab and others is revealing that, independent of any other factors associated with shift work, altered lighting environments that induce chronic jet-lag, which is similar to rotating shift work, have significant health costs.

"It appears that these schedules tend to increase the risks of a number of pathologies, including cancers, and the risks associated with environmental toxin exposure," he says.

Unfortunately, Davidson says it may be too early to propose changes to specific lifestyles or work schedules just yet, as a better understanding of specific risk factors is needed. Until then, he advises encouraging shift workers to lead otherwise healthy lifestyles including healthy eating and weight management, frequent exercise, avoidance of tobacco or excessive alcohol usage, and getting plenty of sleep.

Reference

  1. Bambra C, Petticrew M, Whitehead M, et al. Shifting schedules: the health effects of reorganising shift work. Amer J Prev Med 2008: 34:427-434.