Shift Work & Mental Health – What People Don’t Tell You

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Shift work can affect a person’s mental health both positively and negatively. There is typically a stigma around this line of work and the impact on ones mental health, but it shouldn’t be that way. Shift work is preferred by many people for a number of reasons and where here to showcase why.

Different aspects of shift work can affect a person’s mental. Factors include sleep, time to socialize, diet, physical well-being, your own work performance. Shift work can be a big positive for some people, and not so much for others. The key is understanding what’s impacting your headspace.

Shift work can have both negative and positive effects on multiple areas of your life. The effects are seen however on a case by case basis. Some people adjust better to shift work and are able to cope better than others. And it is perfectly ok to struggle with shift work when first starting out – that’s most likely the reason you are here!

Mentally Adjusting to Shift Work

But before we talk to you about the positives of shift work, and there are plenty, it’s important you understand what you’re up against. Not all of us can choose our working roster, so shift work might be the only way to make ends meet and you need to know what impact it could have on you.

Regarding negative effects, shift work can have a pretty big impact on your mental health if left unchecked.

Studies have linked shift work to various mental health issues. A study from the American Public Health Association (source) showed that people who work shift work are 28% more likely than those who work regular hours to experience issues with their mental health.

This mainly includes mood disorders, such as depression (33% more likely) and anxiety, but can include other mental health issues as well.

For example, Shift Work Disorder (also called Shift Work Sleep Disorder) is a common sleep disorder in people who work a rotating roster. It can have a variety of symptoms that impact your mental health.

For instance, the National Sleep Foundation indicates that Shift Work Disorder can include additional symptoms like excessive tiredness, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and issues with personal relationships (source).

The symptoms of Shift Work Disorder and other related issues arise from several components of shift work. Shift work disrupts multiple areas of your life which, in turn, affects your mental health.

The three main areas include physical health, social involvement, and work performance.

Negative Effects of Shift Work on Mental Health

Physical Health

Your mental health is strongly connected to your physical health. Various illnesses and symptoms can cause both direct and indirect negative effects on your mental state.

For instance, direct effects could include chemical changes in your brain. These then change your emotional processing and behaviors. Indirect effects, such as stress caused by thinking about your physical condition can also exasperate your mental health issues.

The main way that shift work affects your physical health is by throwing off your body’s natural circadian rhythm. This is the internal process that regulates your 24-hour sleep cycle. Humans are not nocturnal creatures. They are naturally meant to be awake and functioning during the day and asleep during the night.

Working overnight or just late into the night can completely readjust this whole process.

Your body becomes confused and you will begin to see your sleep being impacted.

This can cause sleep deprivation, insomnia, unrestful sleep, and other sleep related issues. It can also cause changes in neurotransmitters (chemicals that the brain uses for communication) that leads to behavioral changes.

For instance, Melatonin is a very important neurotransmitter that your body uses to help control mood and behavior.

Typically, Melatonin is secreted overnight, triggered by sleep and darkness. But, when you are a shift worker, the light exposure during, what should be sleeping hours, can actually suppress the release of this neurotransmitter.

What this means is that you will not receive a healthy volume of this chemical. Having a lack of Melatonin, then, could lead to a variety of mental health disorders.

Read more about melatonin and why it’s important in a sister post we wrote. We talk about taking melatonin supplements and how to naturally boost your melatonin levels. Read it here.

Night Shift and Your Social Life

One of the most important components of a person’s life is socialization. People are social creatures and you need social interaction to be in a good mental state.

Having conflicting, or even opposite, sleep schedules as friends and family can prove to be quite a burden on your social life. Shift work can lead to missed time spent with your social circle. It can also decrease the quality in the time that you do get to spend with friends and family.

The American Psychological Association explains that social isolation has been linked to a variety of issues like mood disorders, poor sleep quality, impaired cognitive functioning, cardiovascular (heart) issues, and impaired immunity against diseases (source).

Researchers also explain that social isolation and loneliness can leave you in a constant state of the “fight or flight” response. This is a natural defense response meant to trigger only in times of extreme duress. B

eing in this state for too long can lead to a massive increase in stress and leave you at a much higher risk of mental health complications.

Night Shift and Work Performance

Everyone sets out to be good at their job – shift worker or not. You can get stressed out easily if you struggle at your job. Unfortunately, shift workers tend to struggle a little more at their jobs than their regular hour working counterparts.

Most notably, shift work and the excessive tiredness that comes with it can greatly affect your ability to concentrate. This can cause lapses in judgement, slower reaction times, and potentially more errors to occur throughout your shift.

Some people have stated shift work can feel really lonely compared to day shift. There are much fewer employees that work second and third shift so you are much less likely to be able to interact with others at the job. This is not to say that work is all about socialization but everyone can benefit from working alongside others and especially, those they get along with.

The bits of conversation that you get throughout your day can provide a great deal of relief from work stress. Coworkers are also great resources for when you have questions or concerns about various work tasks. With shift work, you might not have access to these social outlets like a 9-5 worker may have.

Shift workers have also been known to experience what are called “micro sleeps”. This is a condition where you will fall asleep almost instantly for a few seconds at a time. Obviously if you are falling asleep on the job, you are less likely to be putting in a quality work performance.

A negative work performance could impact overall job satisfaction, as well as your ability to hold down the job. Both of these instances will have an impact on your mental health and in turn, cause extra strain.

Positive Effects of Shift Work on Mental Health

So now you know what to look out for, you’re well positioned to attack any of these challenges head on.

A lot of people can actually experience positive effects on their mental health thanks to shift work! For instance, some people enjoy solitude more than others and may consider themselves to be night owls. For these types of individuals, shift work can be a blessing for their mental health.

Positive effects of shift work can be felt before even getting to your shift. On the way to work, a bad commute can set the tone for your entire shift. If this happens often enough, you will end up with a lot more stress than satisfaction out of your job.

One benefit that shift workers often find is easier commutes. There are not a lot of people on the road at this time so you will not have to deal with as many other drivers on the commute to and from work.

Though shift work can have a negative impact on your work productivity, this is not always the case.

Those who are not as impacted by a change in sleep schedule can actually see a positive correlation on productivity. Shift work can be somewhat lonely but less people also means less distractions and more time to focus on your work. As was stated previously, better work performances often lead to higher overall job satisfaction. This would cause less stress in the workplace and a lower risk for mental health issues.

On a similar note as less distraction, people who are less social can also find benefits throughout the day when they are not working.

Shift work allows you to sleep during the day and have a little bit of solitude away from other people. It also gives you a lot of time to focus on yourself.

You can take the extra time during the day to work on your mental health, get errands done and participate in your hobbies to get a relief from the work stress. This can’t be done at the expense of sleep however, as 7-9 hours is a must!

However, shift workers have more time to do these activities during the day, over those working when the suns up.

Overtime and Mental Health

Shift work industries often require you to work long hours. Many shift workers end up working overtime on a daily or weekly basis. This happens in a lot of jobs but some of the common industries include caregiving, medical and healthcare, emergency services, entertainment, security and food service.

In the United States, a typical workday is 8 hours. Most full time employees work 4-5 days per week. So the regular full time work week is between 32 and 40 hours. Overtime is anything over 40 hours in a single week. This may differ in other countries.

Most of the industries mentioned above and many other jobs often require you to work longer shifts and/or more days per week. A few hours of overtime can be nice for your bank account, since you get extra pay for overtime worked (usually time and a half). But there is a such thing as too much overtime.

Overworking yourself, no matter how much you may love your job, is not mentally or physically healthy. Working too much can have a serious negative impact on your mental health. In general, most people cannot mentally handle working more than 10 hours per day, 5 days per week. So, you should try to keep your work schedule under 50 hours per week.

Working too much overtime can cause you a significant amount of stress and even more disruption for your sleep schedule and social life.

Again, these issues could have serious effects on your physical and mental well-being. You could be susceptible to physical health issues, mental disorders, and stress associated with social isolation even more so than just doing shift work. The issues seen with shift work are compounded when you do too much overtime on top of regular work schedule.

Working too much overtime is not just an issue for shift workers, though. Even if you work day shift, you are still at risk of the above mentioned issues. So, no matter which shift you work, you should try to stick to 50 hours of work per week or less.

But be smart about it…

Coping with Shift Work Mental Health Strain

There are a few key areas of your life that you need to take care of to maintain a positive mental state. These areas are harder to control when you are a shift worker but they are even more important.

Though these might not seem directly connected to your mental health, structure in all areas of life is important for your sanity. Some of the main life areas to focus on include;

  • Diet
  • Physical activity
  • Sleep
  • Social life
  • Errands/hobbies

Diet as a Night Shift Worker

The usual diet for full time employees who work during the day includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Though your nutritional needs do not change based on your work schedule, the way you structure your diet will need to. The best diet for shift workers includes one ‘large or main’ meal and several small meals.

Your main meal should be a few hours before your shift starts. For second shift workers, this might be a large brunch or lunch. For third shift workers, this would be a large dinner (or whatever you call the meal before your shift starts). Then, throughout your shift, you will need to eat a few snacks and/or small meals to keep yourself going.

When you do get home, you could also have a light snack before bed. It is not a good idea to eat a full meal before you go to bed though. This could make it hard to sleep, leaving you feeling less rested. It could also cause indigestion (acid reflux) and other related health issues. See – What Should I Eat After Working Night Shift?

Contents of your meals and snacks should be high in protein. These give you a lot of energy and help you get through your shift much more easily.

Realistically, it is rare for anyone to be able to cut caffeine, sugar, and fats out of their diet completely. But you should try to limit these when you can.

Caffeine and sugar rushes are great but they are short-lasting and the crashes can be absolutely brutal for your energy and mental state. In general, spicy and acidic foods are not the best for sleeping patterns either but you should be fine as long as you do not eat them just before jumping into bed.

Here are some more posts about what to eat during your night shift:

Physical Activity and Working Night Shift

Physical activity is a great way to keep your mental health in check. It increases blood circulation to your brain and also stimulates the release of mood regulating hormones and neurotransmitters.

Exercise can also help increase your energy levels over time. Sadly, though, shift work has been associated with a decrease in exercise and physical activity.

But there are ways to keep yourself healthy and active even when you have to adjust to your shift work schedule. Try to fit your exercise routine around events in your day rather than specific times. This helps you stay on schedule without necessarily needing to stress about specific times.

Short workouts can actually do a lot for your overall well-being too. Before you go to work, try to get approximately 30 minutes of cardio in. This could include swimming, biking, running and playing sports, anything to get your heart pumping.

Some people also choose to ride their bike to work but you will need to be careful. Since some of you will be riding at night, make sure you have reflective clothing and/or lights on the bike. This bike light from AmazonOpens in a new tab. works a treat and is reasonably priced too if you need a new one.

During your shift, use your breaks for light exercise. Make sure you take a walk around the general workplace area if you can as well. This helps to keep your blood flowing and your energy up throughout your shift.

Night Shift and Sleep

The average working adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep per day to stay healthy and mentally sharp. Sleep is especially important for those who do shift work. Sleep deprivation not only affects your work performance but can also lead to a host of physical and mental health issues.

It can be hard to adjust your sleep schedule since humans are naturally programmed to sleep during the night, not during the day. But there are a number of products out there which will help you transition.

For temporary purposes only, your doctor may be able to prescribe you sleep aide medication to help you fall asleep easier. They may also suggest some vitamins such as the ones we have listed hereOpens in a new tab. to boost your health as a night shift worker.

You can also get Melatonin supplements over the counter or on AmazonOpens in a new tab.. Melatonin is fine to use daily but can make you super drowsy when taken too close before you need to rise.

Many people who sleep regular hours use this. Prescription sleep aids are more heavy-duty so you should only take them if you really need them. Doctors typically only prescribe them for a couple weeks – tops. See the sleep medications they may prescribe hereOpens in a new tab. and what you need to be on the lookout for.

Light therapy is another great option for helping you transition.

There are two key components to this. First, using bright artificial light helps to readjust your body’s internal clock. You can get light boxes in many varieties such as this hugely popular one on Amazon.

These are designed to use for 15-30 minute sessions. You can consult with a sleep specialist for more information about these.

The second part of this is making sure to avoid natural light during your sleep hours. Blackout your windows as much as possible and wear dark sunglasses when you go outside.

You can also use a white noise machineOpens in a new tab., phone app, YouTube video, etc. to block out other sounds that may disturb you when snoozing during the day.

Here’s a video I made to explain why night shift workers might be having trouble sleep.

Strategies to Maintaining a Social Life Whilst Working Night Shift

Your social life will likely be less active when you are a shift worker but that does not mean it has to be lower quality. It is important to stay involved with your social life. Again, social isolation can cause depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

To maintain a social life with your family, communication will be key. You can discuss your work with your partner, children, etc. so that they understand how you feel and how important your sleep schedule is.

In addition, you can put up visual reminders to help them respect your needs. This could include a sign on your bedroom door like this oneOpens in a new tab. so they know when you are sleeping or a calendar to help them remember your schedule.

For your family and others, make sure you set aside time in your schedule to socialize, even if it is just for a short phone call.

Do not overcommit to events and wear yourself thin. Instead, focus on spending important occasions and/or routine scheduled outings with your loved ones.

Also, remember that your coworkers can be a great social outlet.

You should not let socializing distract you from your work but it can provide a quick break from the stress of your shift. You also know that these people are on the same schedule as you. So these people could be a great circle of friends to hang out with when other social connections are at work, school, etc.

Read – Bored on Night Shift? How to Stay Busy Without the InternetOpens in a new tab.

Running Errands and Enjoying Hobbies and Night Shift

Keep in mind that you still need to get 7-9 hours of sleep per day. But you can also focus time when you are not sleeping or at work on your hobbies and responsibilities.

Light activities such as yoga, meditation, reading, watching a movie, and more are great ways to keep the stress from taking over.

Adjusting your schedule does not have to mean giving up activities. You just need to rearrange your schedule and find the best way to fit them in.

For the healthcare workers; take a good look at the infographic below. Some very interesting statistics along with some great strategies you can start implementing today to better your mental health.

Graphic created by MozzazOpens in a new tab..

Summary: Shift Work & Mental Health – What People Don’t Tell You

Irrespective of the days / times you work, it’s important to prioritise your mental health. There are external forces that can impact your mindset both negatively and positively, depending on how you view them.

Does shift work present more challenges than the 9-5 worker? It all comes down to you and how you view it.

The key here is understanding what impacts you, in a positive and negative sense, and if you find yourself needing some assistance, don’t be afraid to seek the advice of a professional or someone close that you trust.

We hope you took something away from this article!

Next up, this post may be very relevant for some of you: Navigating Job Loss: What To Do After Leaving The Workforce


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Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Emma @ The Other Shift

Hey there! I'm Emma Smith a passionate, Registered Nurse from Australia. Together with my husband Daniel, we run The Other Shift. Our sole aim is to help shift workers and those on unusual schedules find balance between work and life. I understand the challenges of fitting in exercise, maintaining relationships and getting enough quality sleep, but I'm excited to show you that it’s possible to do shift work and still thrive. Read more about us and our story here.

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