‘It’s killing us all slowly’: How the night shift is taking its toll on American workers

Roger Reinhardt works the third shift at a beer production plant in Michigan from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., four days a week. He started working nights because it was the only shift available when he was hired, but he continued to do so for the extra pay.

But it’s not easy.

“It all comes down to sleep. Blackout curtains, white noise, and melatonin supplements don’t do much. The body rebels. When I’m not very well, I wake up every 90 minutes to two hours and can get through most weekdays with just four hours of sleep,” Reinhardt said. “Change is slowly killing us all.”

He noted that the shift has a lot of employee turnover because people are unable or unwilling to sacrifice daylight hours for the sleep they need, and because the need to sleep during the day makes social events, chores and errands much more difficult.

“Almost universally the job is taken because the worker had no other job available or needed the money, or both,” Reinhardt said.

Millions of people in the United States work through the night, from emergency service workers, such as paramedics, nurses, police officers, to hotel, retail and restaurant workers , to transportation and utility workers, to workers in factories and warehouses producing or distributing goods around the clock.

The majority of American workers are at work during the day, working shifts from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or a few hours before or after, but about 5 to 10 percent are at work late into the night, with some working regular nights and others with rotating night shifts.

The impacts of these late-night hours can be profound on workers’ health and their ability to balance a life outside of work.

An Amazon employee in Washington who asked to remain anonymous is working a part-time night shift, Monday through Friday, from 9:45 p.m. to about 2 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. She has been doing it for about a year because it saves her childcare costs and she has time to spend with her children.

“It can get very exhausting because you’re not getting enough sleep that you need as a healthy adult. I only sleep four hours a night and try to take a quiet nap during the day. Some days I feel like I’m in a daze,” she said. “I get paid $1.50 more per hour, so you’ll only earn $6 more for that shift.”

Humans have a 24-hour circadian timing system, a biological clock, affecting physiological processes such as sleep patterns, eating habits and digestion, hormones, blood pressure, and body temperature.

“It evolved to help organisms cope with daily changes in their environment. Our bodies are exposed to very different conditions day and night: during the day we eat normally, move and are alert, while at night we sleep, rest and recover,” said Dr. Laura Kervezee. , a chronobiologist at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

“Night work upsets him. This causes people to be awake and consume food at times when their physiology is primed for sleep and rest. This leads to what we call circadian misalignment, where behavior decouples from the body’s circadian rhythms.

Numerous studies have demonstrated increased health risks for long-term night workers because their work schedules do not match their circadian timing systems, including higher risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression and short-term impacts such as decreased cognitive performance, fatigue and sleep deprivation.

“As a society, we should really ask ourselves if this is really where we want to go, putting people at additional health risk just because we want our package to arrive faster,” Kervezee added, noting that more research needed to be done to identify the link between short-term acute effects and long-term health problems experienced by night shift workers.

A third-shift warehouse worker at UPS in Kentucky who asked to remain anonymous explained the mental and physical exhaustion the shift took on them. They work from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. or later, receiving a higher hourly wage for working the third shift.

“Working in the third team is really difficult. It’s very mentally draining and people around you tend to be grumpier about working, because everyone prefers to be in bed,” they said.

They said it was difficult to get enough sleep because of the noise and light during the day, and they rarely had the time or energy to spend time with family or friends on work days.

Kennedy Sparr works night shifts as a 911 emergency dispatcher in Michigan, working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., often more than 40 hours a week. It is not uncommon for her to be up for 36 hours straight before sleeping.

“It’s definitely harder to train your body to work at night because your body isn’t used to staying up all night,” Sparr said. “I noticed that when I was working night shifts, you’re more upset, you have more attitude, you’re angry, you’re tired, you’re exhausted and you feel drained.”

She said she often doesn’t get enough sleep and the night schedule makes it difficult to maintain relationships with everyone on normal schedules. And she said it’s hard to retrain your body to go back to a night schedule after days off and vacations.

“I don’t think there are ever any nights where I feel fully rested when I come back to work, because I’ve had four hours of sleep and nothing is done at home. I have to do things like laundry, I have to do the dishes. But I just wanted to sleep.

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