How working night shifts can affect your mental health

Susanna Kahr

Are you a night owl who prefers working through the night than during the day? Do your friends joke that you are a bit of a vampire, since you seem to avoid sunlight and get up when they’ve all gone to bed? Or does your work involve being on call at all hours of the day and throughout the night? Whatever the reason behind your working at night, if you’re one of the 15 million Americans working night shifts on a regular basis, then you are probably well aware of the toll it can take on your body and your mind. Here are some ways that working night shifts can affect your mental wellbeing and what you can do. 

Shift work disorder

The effects of shift work on physical and mental health are well-documented. In fact, it’s so well recognized, that the International Classifications of Sleep Disorders even has a specific diagnosis for those experiencing health problems due to working night or atypical shifts – shift work disorder. Shift work disorder is a chronic condition and is considered a “circadian rhythm sleep disorder,” which basically means that the sleep patterns of those working nights become desynchronized. 

This is because circadian rhythms regulate changes in the body. These rhythms are controlled by an internal clock and influenced by external cues, which prompt the body to start or cease different functions at different times. The most powerful of these cues are light and darkness which is why we wake up at sunrise and sleep at sunset. Working night shifts surrounded by bright lights and trying to sleep in a darkened room during the day can really mess with these natural rhythms.

“It was physically challenging at times, with shift work and tasks that required physical and mental toughness, but I would do it again if I needed to.” – anonymous employer review at Leprino Foods

Working nights can mean you don’t get enough sleep 

Shift work disorder can be caused by night shifts, rotating shifts, or even an early morning shift. If you have insomnia or trouble sleeping when you want to, or need to, then this could be a sign that you have shift work disorder. This can mean that you have trouble falling asleep, or you wake up before you’ve slept sufficiently, or feel like your sleep isn’t sufficient. Those with shift work disorder usually report having fewer than 6 hours of sleep during workdays, and work more hours every week than most people. 

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, we all need between 7 and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night to feel well rested and function at our fullest. The body even has built-in mechanisms to make sure that we get enough sleep, including biochemical ways of tracking how long we’ve been awake. If you’ve ever fallen asleep during a night shift, despite drinking crazy amounts of coffee, then you know that your body will try to sleep regardless of what you do. This is even worse if you’ve worked a number of night shifts in a row because this can mean that you build up a sleep debt. With a sleep debt you will feel excessively tired and your body will try to make you fall asleep. 

If you add to this the fact that it’s also difficult to sleep during the day, with light, noise and distractions in the form of household chores, it’s easy to see why working night shifts can really mess up your sleep patterns. 

“Be prepared for 12-hour shifts, but they take great care not to overwork you.” – anonymous employer review at Toray Composite Materials America

Not having enough sleep can lead to depression

Shift work disorder can increase the risk of mental health problems like depression, one contributing factor is the lack of exposure to natural light during the day, and another is the chronic lack of sleep. In fact, those who suffer with insomnia are much more likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression or anxiety and those with obstructive sleep apnea are five times more at risk of being diagnosed with depression.

Of course, working night shifts can also cause you to become out of sync with your friends and family too, which can also lead you to feel depressed or anxious. Some night shift workers say that working night shifts can make it really difficult to make friends and this can lead to feeling socially isolated and lonely. 

“We have to work well together as a team, otherwise our shifts would be chaotic.” – anonymous employer review at KFC

What you can do to help

  • If you like working night shifts, then try to work these on a permanent basis, rather than on and off again. This will help your body to adjust over time. 
  • If permanently working night shifts isn’t an option try to do night shifts for larger blocks of time. 
  • Work as few night shifts in a row as possible.
  • Don’t rely on caffeine as this interferes with sleep, making it more difficult to sleep once you’ve finished your night shift. 
  • Create a good sleeping environment at home – get some black-out blinds, turn off your phone and talk to family members about how they can help you to sleep better during the day i.e. by taking on some chores etc.
  • Ask for help. If you’re experiencing signs of depression or are feeling excessively sleepy at work then make sure to tell your manager or seek professional help. 

 

“I enjoy the people I work with. I work night shift so we have a small, tight group of people on that shift.” – anonymous employer review at Southwood Psychiatric Hospital

It’s important to know that if you’re struggling that you’re far from alone. There are approximately 15 million Americans working night or atypical shifts and there are organizations that can help you. So if you feel socially isolated, depressed, on the edge of burnout or constantly “jetlagged” and excessively sleepy, then make sure to tell those around you and get the support you need. Equally, if your employer is making life hard for you and giving you too many night shifts and too little support, then take a look at our 3,723,105 employer reviews and find a new job!

 

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What are the shift patterns like at your company? Do you feel like you have enough support on offer to help you through the night shifts? Tell us all about it in a review for kununu, one of the world’s largest employer rating platforms.  

 

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