The Price of Chaotic Shift Work Schedules

Most managers realize that using efficient scheduling makes their jobs easier, and makes their employees happier, but the influence of scheduling doesn’t stop there. Just as good schedules can positively impact work environments, chaotic schedules may have the opposite effect. Shift work can take a toll on employee health, especially when hours are long, schedules vary, and shifts stretch late into the night.

tired nurse overtime shift work sleep disorder

A recent study conducted by Alison M. Trinkoff and colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine analyzed data from 700 female nurses with “adverse work schedules,” meaning long hours, high work burden, required on-call hours, and overtime. They compared this group’s obesity-related risk factors with those of 1,000 other nurses with more favorable work schedules. Although both groups reported an overweight/obesity rate of about 55%, the risk factors differed by group. While the favorable-schedule group reported more behavioral risks, such as smoking and alcohol use, the group with adverse schedules reported more situation-influenced risk factors, including less sleep, and less restful sleep.

Sleep deprivation is a big issue for nurses, as well as those in other shift-work positions. Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD) occurs when a work schedule goes against the body’s natural circadian rhythm, the 24-hour rhythmic output of the body’s biological clock. People with SWSD experience excessive or debilitating sleepiness while trying to adapt to a shift work schedule. A lack of sleep not only increases the risk of obesity, as seen in the University of Maryland study, but also infection, cancer, heart disease, and high cholesterol. These health concerns, coupled with the lower job-performance that may result from overwhelming sleepiness, make sleep an important topic across all shift-work industries.

Shift work schedules are inevitable, as some jobs simply cannot be confined to a 9-5 timeframe, but employees and their managers can take steps to reduce the risk of SWSD and the associated problems. Employees should try to limit their caffeine intake, especially when nearing the end of a shift. When they get home, they should make sure they have a dark room to sleep in, and try to stick to a set sleep schedule whenever possible (even when they have a day off). Managers, when using the online schedule maker, should avoid scheduling employees for several consecutive overnight shifts, and consider shortening the usual shift length. These small changes could make a big difference in employee sleep quality as well as, by expansion, employee job performance and health.