A hundred years ago, working through the night was almost unheard of. ‘Lights out’ meant just that: a cessation of activity from evening until the following day. Today, descend into any city on an airplane late at night, and you’re greeted by a dazzling mosaic of lights. Several thousands of people are tending to patients at hospitals, manning the airport, running oil rigs off the coast, driving cabs and trucks, serving buyers at 24×7 stores, and providing support to overseas clients at BPO units. Shift work has become a part of our global lifestyle; a necessary byproduct of our always-on, always-connected world. However, that lifestyle often comes with increased risk of the loss of adequate, good-quality sleep.

A recent 18-nation survey by Fitbit found that Indians are among the world’s most sleep-deprived people. At an average of 7 hours, 1 minute of sleep per night, India was second only to Japan, and ranked behind 16 other nations including the US and the UK. (Significantly, India also happened to be the least-active country in that survey.)

But the problem of sleep deprivation is a global one. According to the 2019 Philips global sleep survey, adults get about 6.8 hours of sleep on average during the week, well below the generally-recommended eight hours. Of the 11,000-plus respondents, 44% said that their sleep has gotten worse  in the last 5 years, while only 26% said it had gotten better.

Link between sleep and health

There is something known as the circadian rhythm : a natural, internal process that governs our waking and sleep times over a 24-hour period. When that rhythm or internal clock is disrupted for any reason—a late-night football game, an all-nighter at the office, a party—your body will feels the stress later. If it happens for just a day or two, the effects may not be much. But consistent disruptions to the sleep cycle can have more serious consequences.

Medical science and sleep experts link sleep deprivation to a long list of health risks, including:

  • (possible) higher cancer risk,
  • cardiovascular disease,
  • type 2 diabetes,
  • reduced immunity,
  • weaker metabolism,
  • mood changes,
  • memory problems,
  • insomnia,
  • sleepiness at work, and
  • fatigue.

When we sleep, our bodies utilise the time to repair cells, clear out junk memories, balance our blood pressure and sugar levels. Sleep also relaxes the mind, reducing chances of stress or irritability. “It is essential for physical, mental and emotional health,” says Dr Manvir Bhatia, a Delhi-based senior neurologist and sleep expert, adding, “Not sleeping enough throws the body off-balance, and increases risk of various ailments.”

And yet, as a globe we seem to be getting less of it. Dr Bhatia says that there is research to indicate that the world over, humans are losing 30 minutes-1 hour of sleep every 10 years. If true, it would underline why reclaiming sleep needs to be one of our foremost priorities.

Shift workers need to be extra careful

When it comes to shift workers, the chances of not getting adequate sleep are higher. Sleeping in the daytime can be more difficult, what with interruptions and chores, and there is a greater tendency to neglect the ‘sleep debt’ that piles up over time. Unhealthy coping strategies (to combat sleepiness, fatigue or work stress) and lack of support at home can also drive up the risk of sleep-related illness. 

Based on his experiencing treating shift workers with sleep-related problems, pulmonologist and somnologist Dr Himanshu Garg says there is a basic lack of understanding of ‘sleep hygiene’. “In most cases, people don’t bother to make up for the hours of sleep they lose due to their shifts. It is self-induced deprivation, rather than because of work,” he says.

Some examples of poor sleep management among shift workers are:

  1. consistently failing to make up for lost sleep hours,
  2. working double shifts or frequently changing shifts,
  3. eating junk or other unhealthy food,
  4. depending on alcohol or pills to sleep after one’s shift, and
  5. ignoring warning signs that something may be wrong with your health.

Here, experts emphasise that the effects of shift work vary from person to person. Women who work night shifts experience more health problems, says Dr Manvir Bhatia, who attributes it to greater household responsibilities and greater vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women. Studies have also linked shift work to increased cancer risk  in women. Men aged 50 years or older may also have higher tendency to develop health problems from shift work, Dr Garg says. 

However, sleep management is not just for a certain demographic category within shift workers; it is important for everyone, regardless of age, gender, health and background. But there’s good news: our bodies are wonderfully adaptable machines. If we manage the transition to shift timings responsibly, then the right physical and hormonal changes follow, and the body manages to adjust well to its new schedule over time.

Stay tuned for our next article, which will have a detailed list of dos and don’ts for ensuring that you transition to a shift job without sacrificing your sleep or putting yourself at the associated risks. 

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