Night Workers More Prone to Major Health Problems

Oct. 21, 2003
Employees regularly working evening and night shifts in 24/7 operations suffer higher rates of gastrointestinal ailments, cardiovascular disease and sleep disorders than the general population, according to a new study.

These workers also tend to consume more cigarettes, caffeine and other stimulants than their daytime counterparts, with more than double the rate of smoking. In addition, parents working fixed night shifts are far likelier to experience divorce or separation, according to the study by Circadian Technologies Inc., a research and management consulting firm specializing in issues affecting 24/7 operations.

These findings should be of high concern to employers seeking to contain rising health care costs - particularly as the work force ages. In the U.S., extended hours employees now constitute more than 18 percent of the work force.

"There are tremendous financial and service benefits to extended hours operations in today's global economy, but these operations contribute to considerably more social stresses and specific health problems for the employees who staff them," said Acacia Aguirre, M.D., Ph.D., Circadian medical director and principal author of "Health in Extended Hours Operations: Understanding the Challenges, Implementing the Solutions." "Extended hours employees account for a disproportionate share of direct health care costs, and that number rises when indirect costs, such as absenteeism and turnover, are factored in."

Adopting measures to mitigate health problems that are more prevalent among extended hours workers will yield a strong return for employers seeking to curb future health care costs, Aguirre added. She noted that for every dollar invested in one measure company-sponsored employee assistance programs $16 is saved on average due to lower rates of accidents, turnover and absenteeism among employee populations participating in such programs.

The study cites a number of severe health problems and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors that occur with greater frequency among extended hours workers:

Gastrointestinal disorders - Peptic ulcers are two to five times more frequent among extended hours workers than among day workers. Using a standardized measure that rates digestive disorders, such as heartburn, nausea and abdominal pains, on a scale of 0 to 24, Circadian found that the average score for extended hour workers was 13 compared with a score of 8.5 for day workers.

Cardiovascular disease - Epidemiological studies show an association between shift work and cardiovascular disease, including higher morbidity with increasing age and shift work experience, a higher prevalence of angina and hypertension, and increased risk for mycocardial infarction in occupations with a high proportion of shift workers.

Smoking - 55 percent of male extended hours workers smoke, compared with a national average of 25 percent of men aged 18 or older; 51 percent of female extended hours workers smoke compared with 21 percent of women over age 18.

Reliance on stimulants - Workers in extended hours operations are twice as likely to use prescription or non-prescription stimulants as the general population. More caffeine consumption - Among all employees surveyed, average consumption of caffeinated beverages was two cups or cans per day. But extended hours workers drink on average more than three cups or cans per day.

An executive summary of "Health in Extended Hours Operations: Understanding the Challenges, Implementing the Solutions," can be obtained by contacting Tracy Maddaloni at (781) 676-6924 or [email protected].

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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