Night-Shift Workers Don’t Adjust to Overnight Hours

Some jobs require night work – there’s no way around it – ER doctors, airline pilots, police officers. The need for overnight staff has previously outweighed the health risks these hours pose. It’s been widely suggested (and rationalized) that night workers can adjust to night hours. However, thanks to wearable tracking devices, scientists are proving this may not be true.

Scientists tracked groups of hospital workers in France, some who worked day shifts and some who worked nighttime hours. The devices monitored them during working hours as well as their free time and found that night work considerably impacts sleep quality and interferes with circadian rhythms – the body’s internal clock. What’s more, these impacts can be felt for years to come.

This study looked at 63 night-shift workers who worked at least three nights a week. They were compared with 77 day-shift workers who worked either mornings or afternoons. For one week, both groups wore accelerometers, which measure movement intensity, and temperature sensors throughout the day and night. The data was recorded by Université Paris-Saclay and Inserm’s research team. With these tools, the researchers could estimate the amount of sleep the participants were getting, the quality of their circadian rhythms, and whether or not their sleep was disrupted.

Results indicated that night-shift workers experienced less than half the median frequency and quality of sleep as their day-shift counterparts. Almost half the night-shift workers had disruption to their circadian rhythm and were not sleeping in alignment with their internal clocks. This includes night-shift workers who had been working nights for many years – the longer they had retained nighttime work hours, the more severe their sleep disruption. In other words, they never “got used to it.”

Professor Bärbel Finkenstädt from the University of Warwick Department of Statistics stated, “There’s still an assumption that if you do night work, you adjust at some stage. But you don’t. We saw that most workers compensate in terms of quantity of sleep, but not in terms of quality during the work time.”

According to Dr. Julia Brettschneider of the University of Warwick Department of Statistics, night shift work is more than just an inconvenience. “It can be linked to serious health risks. We can’t avoid shift work for many professions, like healthcare workers, so we should be thinking about what can be done in terms of real-world adjustments to improve working conditions and schedules of shift workers.”

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