4 Potential Health Risks Of Working Night Shifts

Your work schedule can take a toll on your health, not just in terms of the length but also the timing of working hours. Irregular timings, as opposed to the typical 9-to-5 schedule, are usually followed by medical staff, police officers, truck drivers, firefighters, and more.

Survey data shows Americans are more prone to working nights compared to people from other countries. While some stick to a nocturnal schedule, others work rotating shifts where they switch between day and night shifts as per the demands of the job.

Researchers have looked into the possible health effects of this, though most of the research has been observational in nature. This means that many studies can highlight risks in the population, though a clear causal relationship cannot be confirmed just yet. Here are four possible health risks we know about.

1. Sleep deprivation

In a 2012 study, researchers from the University of Iowa examined how shift work might affect police officers. Those who worked nights were 14 times more likely to not meet the recommended sleep guidelines compared to those who worked day shifts.

In another breakdown of sleep quality and shift timings, poor sleep had a prevalence as follows — 44 percent for those worked day shifts, 60 percent for those who worked afternoons, and 69 percent for those worked the night shifts.

2. Poor mental health

Of course, it is known that poor sleep is linked to fatigue and mood problems. But this risk may emerge even if a worker follows a consistent night shift schedule and gets enough rest in the morning. This is due to the social isolation that follows.

"I’ve worked nights in the hospital and known the isolation that comes with it," writes James Hamblin, M.D., a physician and writer for the Atlantic. "You get invitations to social things and initially think, yeah I’ll be there. But then you realize you’ll be asleep. If you start to sacrifice sleep to keep a social life up, you can end up equally miserable."

3. Type 2 diabetes

Disrupting your sleep cycle also means irregularities in your meal timings and changes in stress levels. Such factors could influence blood sugar levels. One observational study from China estimated a 9 percent greater risk of diabetes in shift workers when compared to their counterparts. 

The same study listed several factors and also noted a gender difference with regard to this health risk. Men who work irregular hours may have a much higher likelihood than women.

4. Cancer

Night shift work was classified as a "probable carcinogen" back in 2007, meaning workers may have an elevated risk of developing cancer compared to the rest of the population. Being exposed to light — especially from electronic screen devices — during nighttime may have something to do with this.

"This can alter sleep-activity patterns, suppress melatonin production, and disregulate genes involved in tumor development," stated the International Agency for Research on Cancer.