The long-term impact of unstable shifts

A study out this week highlighted the long-term health impact of working unstable hours. As we work longer there needs to be more focus on the health implications of how we work.



A new study out this week finds that young adults who work shifts outside the usual 9-to-5 schedule are more likely to experience worse sleep and symptoms of depression in their 50s. The study, which analysed data from over 7,000 people in the US over three decades, reveals that volatile work hours can lead to bad sleep, physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and poor health.

The most significant impact was observed in individuals who had stable work hours in their 20s but shifted to volatile schedules in their 30s. The study highlights the negative effects of non-traditional work schedules on health.

There have been previous studies suggesting similar health problems related to working changing shifts. I recall a former manager regularly citing them to me as the core news team did a pattern at the time which involved switching between day and night shifts. He lived in fear of being transferred to the core news team as he had a history of health problems.

People are not machines and it turns out that our bodies need some form of regularity and rhythm. It’s not really surprising. But what it does show is the potential long-term health impact of modern ways of working. It’s not just unstable hours, but also insecure ones which make it more likely that people might accept unstable hours.

I look at my daughter. She is working shifts, often very long ones where she has to get up very early and work till fairly late with a long commute on top. Some weeks she gets a few days off in a row, but often it is just one day here and another day there. She’s not even in her 20s yet, but I worry about how exhausted she seems and how little time there is for her to recover. She’s lucky too because she doesn’t have to pay rent so she could reduce her hours.

The other thing is that all her friends are working similar patterns with the odd day off. That means the days off rarely coincide which in turn means little social life unless she burns the candle at both ends.

Our 24/7 culture is very convenient when you need something and it’s late, but the health implications both in the short and the longer term need to be considered. We could be storing up a whole new set of problems in middle age at a time when we are putting such emphasis on people working longer.

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