Goodnight, Mood: Night Shifts Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Studies have found a correlation to cancer, heart disease, depression and unhealthy behavior.

For 10 years, professional deejay Joseph Star, 33, has been living a topsy-turvy life: working all night and having breakfast in the afternoon. His workday starts at dusk and usually ends around 3 A.M., but sometimes not until 5 A.M. He can’t remember the last time he went to bed at the same time as his wife.

But apart from the difficulty of coordinating his life with those around him, Star is quite content with this arrangement.

“I enjoy the nighttime, the quiet,” he said. “I don’t feel I’m missing anything by sleeping during the day. The dilemma is on the personal level: spending time with my wife, family and friends. We don’t keep the same hours. On holidays I usually don’t stay for the full meal because I need to go to work. Down the road, when the family expands, I’ll probably need to change my schedule.”

According to the Economy Ministry’s planning and research department, 60,000 wage earners work exclusively at night, defined under the Hours of Work and Rest Law as a shift that includes at least two hours between 10 P.M. and 6 A.M. But the number of night owls could balloon into the hundreds of thousands once you add in doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen, airport and hotel staff and the self-employed.

Michael Haimov, 50, drove a cab for 14 years, only at night. “My biological clock adapted itself to staying up nights, so I didn’t suffer or find it hard,” he said. “I preferred the empty wide-open roads over the congestion during the day. There are people who are owls, who enjoy the night.”

Most people, however, aren’t suited to night work, and if they keep it up for long, it will soon take a toll on their health − mainly due to accumulated sleep deprivation. Sleep during the day is less effective and lacks the quality of nighttime sleep.

“Night work is detrimental to the body,” said Elad Sorkin, 27, a paramedic working day and night shifts at the Terem emergency medical center in Ramat Gan. But he prefers it because of the extra pay − 25% above the standard hourly rate for the eighth hour and 50% more for additional hours.

“The biological clock turns upside down, leading to fatigue and problems with concentrating,” Sorkin said. “After a night shift, I go to sleep until 1 P.M., and the day is shot. No matter how much I sleep during the day, I still feel drowsy. I’m always less focused. I know this isn’t a lifetime job.”

According to occupational physician Dr. Oren Zack, the source of health disorders for night workers is the disruption of the natural biological clock that tells us when to sleep and when to get up. “It takes time to catch up on missing sleep, especially since people don’t have a ‘sleep bank,’” he explained. “In the short run, sleep deprivation affects the mood and cognitive abilities.

Enough sleep

“Adults should enjoy seven to nine hours of sleep at night, because cognitive abilities are slightly impaired even with six hours of sleep,” he continued. “In the long run, night workers can suffer problems with their blood pressure and metabolizing blood sugar and fats. The World Health Organization has reported a stronger correlation between night work and cancer than with cell phones.”

Oren Wacht, a former Magen David Adom paramedic studying for a doctorate in health science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, found a connection between night work and the occurrence of breast and colon cancer, heart disease and depression, as well as unhealthy behavior such as poor eating habits and smoking.

“The biological clock gets disrupted by shift work, resulting in exhaustion, headaches, drowsiness and an inclination to eat unhealthy foods − for example, junk food and sweetened snacks − to stay alert,” Wacht said. “Working at night encourages smokers to smoke more. The body is less capable of coping with cholesterol at night. Studies have proven for good reason that working in shifts shortens lives and has adverse health effects.”

Working at night is especially problematic when it is part of a long shift stretching out for 24 hours or more, compounding sleep deprivation and exhaustion. Dr. Daniel Lantzberg, 36, a gynecology resident at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, suffers from chronic sleep deprivation, which not only puts him at risk, but his patients too.

“Sleep deprivation has turned me into another person,” he said. “I’m much more impatient and agitated than I was in the past. My wife is also a medical resident, and has already tried unlocking the car at the end of the shift with a credit card. I’ve started putting the car into reverse instead of drive and once got into an accident with another resident who had also just ended his shift. And I still haven’t mentioned the medical procedures I perform in a state of extreme fatigue. It’s scary.”

Night workers don’t only suffer from medical problems, but also from harm to their social and personal lives. A Canadian study from 2010 found that working nights is widespread mainly among younger people and singles. A Danish study in 2008 found that shift workers, particularly women, reported a continual impact on their family lives.

What can be done to solve some of the problems connected with night work? If the shifts are on a rotational basis, Zack recommends not doing more than three night shifts a week. Rotating shifts are preferable to fixed shifts, since sleep can be had at least some of the nights, he explained.

Employers should also involve staff in planning the shifts and help them stay alert by allowing them to do physical activity while working.

“Even a short walk or several minutes on an exercise bike will help,” Zack said. “It’s also worthwhile leaving a cafeteria open or installing vending machines or a microwave oven. The sensible use of caffeine in certain doses and at the right times can also be a big help. Hard cases and those diagnosed with SWSD [shift work sleep disorder] should consult a sleep expert.”

David Bachar
Ofer Vaknini