Fatigue Occupational illnesses Research/studies Worker health and wellness Shift work

Exploring shift worker health

Although often focused on the effects of fatigue, research has expanded


Tips for workers and employers

A NIOSH blog post on shift work offers guidance for both workers and employers.

For employers:

  • Set aside at least 10 straight hours per off day so workers get seven to eight hours of sleep.
  • Allow frequent, brief breaks (every one to two hours) during demanding work. These breaks are more effective against fatigue than a few longer breaks. Allow longer breaks for meals.
  • Be aware that five eight-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts per week are usually tolerable. Twelve-hour days may be tolerable with more frequent, scattered rest days. Shorter shifts (eight hours) at night are more tolerable.
  • Examine work demands. Twelve-hour shifts are more tolerable for “lighter” tasks, such as desk work.
  • Plan one or two full days of rest after five straight eight-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts. Consider two rest days after three straight 12-hour shifts.
  • Provide training so workers are aware of resources to help with any difficulties of shift work.
  • Examine near misses and incidents to determine the role fatigue may have played.

For workers:

  • Make sure you have enough time to sleep after work.
  • Avoid heavy food and alcohol and reduce intake of caffeine and other stimulants several hours before sleep.
  • Exercise routinely.
  • Sleep in a place that’s dark, comfortable, quiet and cool.
  • Seek help from a health care provider if you are experiencing sleep problems.

For more information, go to http://blogs.cdc.gov.

Other studies

A sampling of recent research on shift work and its health effects:

  • A study published in January 2013 by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle connected shift work to ovarian cancer.
  • A study published in July 2014 by Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China linked shift work to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • A study published in October 2014 by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel suggested that disruption in the body’s circadian clock through shift work or frequent flights across time zones disrupts gut microbes, resulting in obesity and metabolic issues.
  • A study published in November 2014 by the University of Toulouse in France concluded that performing shift work for many years can result in diminished brain power, and a worker would need at least five years to recover.


As researchers continue to explore the effects of shift work on health, employers can help, Lawson said. Businesses could provide services such as healthy food options and workout facilities. Policies that incorporate naps, rest time and flexible schedules are other possibilities.

View the National Sleep Foundation's resources for employees who suffer from shift work disorder.

Workers need to prioritize sleep and take into consideration factors such as napping and caffeine intake, Dautovich said. “For a shift worker, considering their bedroom environment may be even more critical, making sure the bedroom is designed to help them wind down, avoiding electronics, controlling light perhaps through blackout curtains, eliminating or masking noise with a sound conditioner,” she said.

Lawson encourages workers to understand the importance of sleep and share that information with their family and others to help reduce conflicting demands.

“Speak up for yourself with your employer if you’re finding yourself too fatigued to drive home or too fatigued to safely do your job,” she said. “That’s important, to try to advocate for yourself.”

Photo credits: Background image: STILLFX/iStock/Thinkstock; doctor photo: ColorBlind Images/Blend Images/Thinkstock; factory photo: dominiquelandau/iStock/Thinkstock; worker photo: Fuse/Thinkstock

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