Shift workers more likely to report poor health

11:30am Thursday 18th December 2014

content supplied by NHS Choices

"Higher rates of obesity and ill-health have been found in shift workers than the general population," BBC News reports.

These are the key findings of a survey into health trends among shift workers; defined as any working pattern outside of the normal fixed eight-hour working day (though start and finish times may vary).

According to the survey (The Health Survey for England 2013), shift workers were more likely to report general ill-health, have a higher body mass index (BMI) and increased incidence of chronic diseases such as diabetes.

The Health Survey for England 2013 also monitored other trends in the nation's health, including people's weight, smoking habits, fruit and vegetable consumption, and prescribing patterns for drugs (a story we covered earlier this month). 

Who produced the data?

The report was produced by the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), the official provider of national health and social care statistics. The HSCIC was set up by the government in April 2013. Its role is to provide information on a range of issues concerning health for use by commissioners, analysts and clinicians in driving patient services.

In the interests of transparency we should point out that the Behind the Headlines team, along with all NHS Choices staff, is employed by the HSCIC.

The HSCIC produces an annual Health Survey for England that monitors important aspects of the population's health.


How was the data collected?

The data comes from interviews with a representative sample of the population. Participants aged 16 years and over who were in employment were asked whether they worked in shifts either "most of the time", "occasionally" or "never". Those who answered either "most of the time" or "occasionally" were then asked which type of shift work they were doing. Shift work was defined in the question as "work outside the hours of 7am to 7pm in your (main) job".

Participants were then grouped into shift workers (who reported that they did shift work "most of the time" or "occasionally") and non-shift workers.

Comparisons between shift workers and non-shift workers across a range of health and lifestyle factors were age-standardised, so that any differences in age profile are taken into account in the comparisons.

What were the key findings?


Why do shift workers tend to be less healthy?

There are a number of potential underlying factors that may impact on health and wellbeing.

Firstly, shift working can disrupt what are known as circadian rhythms, the internal "body clock". This can disrupt the normal workings of a hormone called melatonin. This disruption can lead to poor sleep and chronic fatigue.

Persistent lack of good quality sleep has been linked to a range of chronic conditions such as obesity, depression, diabetes and heart disease.

While the body can slowly adapt to the changes in working patterns, many shift workers are on rotating shifts and suddenly switching from a night to day shift leads to further disruptions.

Rotating shift work can also disrupt the production of insulin, which may increase the risk of someone developing type 2 diabetes.

There is also the fact that shift workers tend to be on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. And there is evidence that people on lower incomes have an increased tendency to smoke, drink excessive amounts of alcohol and eat a poor diet. There is also the stress and worry associated with trying to make ends meet.


What has previous research found?

There has a been a range of studies linking shift work to a number of different adverse outcomes; which we have looked at previously in Behind the Headlines. These include claims that:

The issue with all the studies is that due to the complex play of personal, environmental and socioeconomic factors, researchers were unable to prove a direct cause and effect link between shift work and the outcomes listed above; only an association.

Still, there seems to be a consensus that while shift work may not be actively dangerous, it is certainly not an ideal arrangement for healthy living.


So what can shift workers do?

Well, ideally, find another job. But that is often easier said than done. Most of us don't have the luxury of quitting a job if the hours don't suit us unless we have another job lined up.

That said, if you are unhappy with your current situation, it is worth spending a few hours every week signing up to job search sites. Along with commercial sites, the government also provides a service known as Universal Jobmatch.

The Health and Safety Executive also offers some useful and practical advice for people working shift work. This includes:

Read more Hints and tips for shift workers


Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.


"Higher rates of obesity and ill-health have been found in shift workers than the general population," BBC News reports. These are the key findings of a survey into health trends among shift workers; defined as any working pattern outside.

Links to Science

Shift workers 'sicker and fatter'. BBC News, December 15 2014

Shift workers more likely to suffer from poor health, including diabetes and obesity. The Independent, December 15 2014

Useful Links

Further Readings

Health & Social Care Information Centre. Shift Work (PDF, 738kb). December 2014

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