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Hidden Hazards Of Night Shift Work And Gender On Career Health And Advancement

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Many workers have jobs that require them to work night shifts, but they don’t realize how late shifts can affect their mental and physical health. And women in professional roles may not realize how work stress impacts them differently from men. New studies reveal surprising findings into the hidden risks of both gender and time of day to the mind and body in the workplace.

Night Shift Work

Studies show that the disruption of the circadian rhythm cycle—the natural, internal process that regulates the sleep/wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours—can be a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The underlying causes have not been clear until recently. In a controlled laboratory study, scientists at University of Missouri and Washington State University examined the white blood cells of participants in a simulated day or night shift at three-hour intervals. The simulated night shift schedule altered the normal circadian rhythm of genes, causing internal clock confusion and reducing insulin sensitivity. The researchers found elevated DNA damage and higher cancer risk among night shift workers but not day shift workers. “We hypothesized that the messages cells produce and send each other during night work are different than those sent during the day shift,” said Dr.David Gozal at the MU School of Medicine. “These messages come via microscopic packages called exosomes. Our study found these packages disrupt the synchronicity of the body’s systems during night shifts and cause increased insulin resistance and other health issues.” These latest findings support the prevalence of cancer among night shift workers, which led the World Health Organization to classify night shift work as a carcinogenic hazard to humans.

Work Stress And Women’s Coronary Heart Risk

Data from previous research showed women, in particular, who work rotating night shifts, may be at risk for coronary heart disease—some statistics reporting a 40% increase risk to women due to job strain alone. A new study found that the association between stressors—including job strain, stressful life events and social pressure—and coronary heart disease (CHD) is high in women and differs depending upon the types of stressors. Researchers assessed data from 80,825 participants involved in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, which tracked participants from 1991 to 2015. The study found that a total of 3,841 (4.8%) women developed CHD during an average of 14.7 years of follow‐up. Other stressors, job tenure, socioeconomic factors and high stressful life events were associated with a 12% increased CHD risk, and high social strain was associated with a 9% increased CHD risk. The combination of job stress and social strain was tied to a 21% higher risk of CHD among women.

Implications Of The Research On Job Performance

It’s important for employees who work rotating night shifts to implement lots of self-care into their daily routines: ample sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise. Getting plenty of Vitamin D through salmon, yogurt, or cheese to offset the doses of sunlight you miss while sleeping during the day. And when possible get outside in nature’s sunlight to get natural doses of Vitamin D. Avoid caffeine and alcohol to reduce circadian disruption from rotating shifts. And if you show symptoms of any disease hazards that might be associated with night shift work, contact your primary care health provider and discuss the symptoms with your employer.

In terms of excess job strain among women, it’s believed to be the result of the dual burden working women face in regard to work/home balance. And it can be mitigated when working women have appropriate power in the workplace to respond to job demands and when safety measures against sexual harassment and other stressors are in place. “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted ongoing stresses for women in balancing paid work and social stressors,” said Dr. Yvonne Michael, associate professor at Drexel University. “We know from other studies that work strain may play a role in developing CHD, but now we can better pinpoint the combined impact of stress at work and at home on these poor health outcomes. My hope is that these findings are a call for better methods of monitoring stress in the workplace and remind us of the dual-burden working women face as a result of their unpaid work as caregivers at home.”

Kelli Waters Egger, LCSW, CAADC, director of care at Listeners On Call, addressed the existing stigmas surrounding mental wellness and workforce culture and how employers can implement effective mental health benefits here. She recommends having workplace support such as a non-judgmental, peer listener. Seeking support early in times of stress and burnout greatly reduces their impact, Egger said. Plus, companies can provide employees with resources that give them a place to feel heard and understood in order to foster healthier and happier male and female workers. According to Egger, every dollar invested in employee well-being returns three to four dollars in benefit to the company.