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Health, Science

New Research Asks: Could you hack a night shift?

Just too tired by fmgbainIt’s 5 am and you feel like death. Eight hours down and you’ve still got four more to go. With a mind like sludge, a phone rings and you need to sound attentive and informed. This isn’t going to be easy.

Me – I hate night shifts. Hours of dark, unrewarding loneliness accompanied with the odd things your digestive system does at four in the morning. Finishing means collapsing into bed utterly exhausted as the rest of the world enjoys their Cheerios. It is strange experience. Even stranger, is that so many people actually love working at night.

Some people must be better at it than others. Researchers from Bergen, Norway – a country known for very long, dark winters – compiled over 30 years of research to find out what makes a true ‘night worker’. Could this be you? Read on, to see if you are built to work the night shift…

Night working and Health

Day 4 - Waking Up by The Snarky Princess

Now you know there is a term for how much you like mornings - "Morningness"! Image credit: The Snarky Princess (Flickr)

It is generally thought that working at night is bad for you. Some sleep experts have said that it is as bad as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. Other evidence casts doubt on these headline-grabbing claims. It is more likely is that people who work nights have a tendency to lead less healthy lifestyles and smoke more – rather than the other way around.

So how can you find out whether you are likely to make it through night duty – without resorting to alcohol and nicotine? These are the four factors that the Scandinavian researchers discovered:

  • Younger adults tolerate night working best
  • Men tend to fare better than women
  • Early morning-haters prefer night shifts – People who have a low ‘morningness’(!) score.
  • There is some evidence that good night workers possess genetic differences (they have the so-called “healthy shift worker gene”)

Can I really tell if I am suited to night shifts?

This new research effectively works out who the best shift workers are on average (it is a ‘meta-study’) So generalisations are inevitable – I’ve certainly met many a person who enjoyed night shifts that didn’t fit these criteria. As a general guide though, it’s an interesting and useful check-list.

The one way to find out whether you are a true night-worker would be to give it a try. I certainly don’t ever look forward to night shifts in the future.

One question remains: What’s my excuse for struggling so much despite being a fairly young guy, who doesn’t particularly love mornings?

I think I’ll blame it on the genes…

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Thanks for reading – Your comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!

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References:

Saksvik, I., Bjorvatn, B., Hetland, H., Sandal, G., & Pallesen, S. (2011). Individual differences in tolerance to shift work – A systematic review Sleep Medicine Reviews, 15 (4), 221-235 DOI: 10.1016/j.smrv.2010.07.002

Tenkanen L, Sjöblom T, Kalimo R, Alikoski T, & Härmä M (1997). Shift work, occupation and coronary heart disease over 6 years of follow-up in the Helsinki Heart Study. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 23 (4), 257-65 PMID: 9322816

KivimAki, M., Kuisma, P., Virtanen, M., & Elovainio, M. (2001). Does shift work lead to poorer health habits? A comparison between women who had always done shift work with those who had never done shift work Work & Stress, 15 (1), 3-13 DOI: 10.1080/02678370118685

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

Discussion

4 thoughts on “New Research Asks: Could you hack a night shift?

  1. Night shift working always left bad effect on health. So many people avoid to work in night shift. But young guys some times prefer this.

    Posted by find doctor | September 22, 2011, 8:56 am
  2. I’m not too thrilled you’ve taken my photo and not linked back or credited me for it. I’m in the red tank top, writhing in pain. Not the fact that it’s actually afternoon when the picture was taken.

    Posted by Amanda Ruth | October 1, 2013, 6:14 am
    • Hi Amanda,
      Sorry for the delay in replying, your comment was stuck in the ‘pending approval’ queue. The image has the title, alt text and hyperlink to your Flickr photostream, as per the HTML/BBCode from the Flickr photo page.
      I have now included an additional attribution comment in the image caption. I hope this is ok?
      Apologies and thanks for sharing this photo via creative commons,
      Stu

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | December 15, 2013, 5:23 pm

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