Is working at night bad for your health?

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In 2009, shift workers accounted for 16 per cent of employees within Australia, with around 1.4 million Australians employed in this type of worki. Shift work can be an attractive option due to the often higher pay rates for late night or early morning shiftsii, but can also pose some serious risks to health.

Drowsiness while at work is often a negative effect of working night shifts.

The human body relies on the transition from day to night to regulate many essential functions such as body temperature, digestion and heart rateiii. This cycle, known as the circadian rhythm, can be easily disrupted, playing havoc on physical and emotional well-being. The circadian rhythm also controls the body's sleep cycle, by signalling the brain to produce the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin as night begins to falliii.

Negative effects of working at night

Working long hours into the night or waking very early in the morning can disrupt the natural sleep-wake cycle, which promotes alertness during the day and the urge to sleep at night . Not surprisingly, impaired alertness is one of the most common effects of a disrupted circadian rhythm which can increase reaction times, decrease decision making ability and decrease attention spaniv. These can all result in preventable accidents and injury in the workplaceiv. According to research published in the Medical Journal of Australia, 32 per cent of night shift workers suffer from a condition called 'shift work disorder'. Shift work disorder results in excessive sleepiness during waking periods and insomnia during the day, making the effects of already disrupted sleep patterns even worsev.

Night shift workers also have a higher likelihood of developing a number of other serious mental and physical conditions includingiii:

Minimise the effects

The risk of preventable accidents can increase with night shift work.

If your job requires late or irregular working hours, there are some steps you can take to minimise the adverse effects of a disrupted sleep pattern. Firstly, discuss your schedule with your boss so that you are able to have adequate time for sleep between your shiftsv. If you work shifts that change constantly, such as a rotating schedule, going from day to afternoon to night shifts; this can be easier for the body to manageiv. To help promote good sleep, try following these simple stepsv:

Diet and exercise also influence how your body copes with a frequently changing work schedule. Having plenty of fresh, easy to eat foods like raw vegetables, fruits, and nuts readily available can help you make smarter snack choices. Make time to prepare meals so that they are ready when you get home. Eating smaller, more frequent meals won't leave you feeling overly full and sluggish, and sitting down to eat and relax will help your digestion. Moderate exercise, such as walking, can also help you sleep better when it's time for some shut-eyevii.

iAustralian Bureau of Statistics 2010, Australian labour market statistics, Oct 2010, Cat No. 6105.0, ABS, Canberra, viewed 22 January 2015,

iiFair Work Ombudsman, Penalty rates & allowances, viewed 22 January 2015,

iiiBetter Health Channel 2014, Shiftwork - health effects, viewed 22 January 2015,

ivRajaratnam, SMW., Howard, ME., Grunstein, RR., 2013, ' Sleep loss and circadian disruption in shift work: health burden and management', The Medical Journal of Australia, Med J Aust 2013; 199 (8), pages 11-15, viewed 27 January 2015,

vMansfield, DR., McEvoy, RD. 2013, 'Sleep disorders: a practical guide for Australian health care practitioners', Journal of the Australian Medial Association, viewed 27 January 2015,

viGrow, M. 2013, ' Exactly why is hospitality such risky business?', Hospitality Magazine, viewed 27 January 2015,

viiNational Sleep Foundation 2014, Tips for healthy eating and exercising when working shifts, viewed 27 January 2015,