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Night Work: What Are the Risks?

According to most recent data, more than 3 million people currently work nights in the UK. This means that night workers make up 11,5% of Britain’s workforce, or one in nine employees. As night shifts can often be slower paced in comparison to daytime work, they are sometimes preferred by individuals who enjoy the solitude and silence of late hours. But have you ever wondered how working through the night affects your body?

Regular sleep is required for the body to be able to remain healthy and clear out toxins. It also allows the body and mind to recharge so that you feel fresh and are able to concentrate and think clearly upon waking up. This process is regulated by your body’s 24-hour clock, also called circadian rhythm, that aligns your sleep and state of alertness with day and night. Since working nights requires the body to be active on a schedule that goes against the circadian rhythm, this can lead to a number of undesirable effects.

As your metabolism is mainly governed by hormones the release of which is maintained by the circadian rhythm, working during the night can change the way those hormones are released and circulated, thus changing your metabolism. Night work also suppresses the production of melatonin due to exposure to light during the hours in which you sleep. This melatonin decrease means that the sleep that you get during the day will not be as deep as the body needs to properly recharge and repair itself. Another effect that night work has on your health is vitamin D deprivation that can occur due to not receiving enough sunlight. As this vitamin is essential for the absorption of calcium and bone growth, receiving too little of it can lead to a range of disorders.

The conditions that can develop as a result of working nights and the effects that this has on the body are various and can be extremely serious. Night work increases the risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancer, as well as the likelihood of cardiovascular issues, including a heart attack. The changes in metabolism that it causes can lead to obesity and diabetes due to the hormone imbalance that occurs and unfortunately this is a possibility even if you eat a healthy diet. Furthermore, since the mind is naturally inclined to decrease cognitive and mobility functions during the night, there is a significantly higher chance of workplace incidents occurring due to employees not being as focused and clear-thinking as they would normally be. In addition, research shows that late night work can also negatively affect workers’ mental and psychological well-being, leading to higher difficulties in personal and family life and resulting in chronic fatigue, mood disorders, anxiety and/or depression.

As night work is clearly a major health and safety risk due to the huge strain it puts on the body and mind, it is essential that night workers go through extensive medical evaluation to ensure their fitness for night-time work. As workers’ tolerance to night work varies widely, the results can be very different for everyone. Regular testing after the employee has already began working night shifts is also important, as it can help differentiate manageable symptoms which can be attributed to the body transitioning to the new sleep/wake cycle from more serious ones which may point to a pathological disorder being present. This is important so that in case of the latter, appropriate therapy can be arranged, or the work schedule of the affected employee can be revised.

Are you looking to protect your night-shift employees from various health risks and provide them with appropriate assessment under the Working Time Regulations act? Healthscreen UK can help! Not only do we provide the annual Night Worker Medical test required under the regulations but can also advise on creating a suitable program of health assessment, designed in accordance with the needs of your organisation, and undertake it for you. Contact us today or click here to get a quote!


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