The impact of shift work and sleep disorders on the mental health of shiftworkers

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By: Kelly Sansom, Tim Smithies and Dr Ian C Dunican

Modern-day society is always on! 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Advancements in technology, globalisation, and consumer demand primarily drive this. While this benefits productivity, it has increased the number of people required to do shiftwork across various industries, including healthcare, emergency services, transportation, media, and hospitality. Shift work is defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) as “a system of working whereby the daily hours of operation at the place of employment are split into at least two set work periods (shifts) for different groups of workers“. 1 In 2021, the ABS reported that 15% of Australian employees were currently working a shift work schedule. 2

Shift work may include early morning starts (<07:00) or night-time work (>17:00-07:00) which can disrupt the natural sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm. This disruption negatively impacts shift workers’ physical and mental health. Research has shown that shift workers have a 30% increased risk of mental health conditions, particularly depression, compared to non-shift workers.3 Shift workers are also at greater risk of having sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea and insomnia. 4,5 However, less is known about the impact of shift work on younger adults. This is highly important given that those aged 20-24 comprise Australia’s largest proportion of shift workers.1

Australian researchers investigated the relationship between shift work and mental health with 660 22-year-olds from Western Australia involved in the Raine Study, an internationally recognised multi-generational longitudinal study. Of the 660 involved in this study, approximately 27% of these people were classified as shiftworkers. The research team from Flinders University examined whether sleep disorders, including sleep apnoea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome, contributed to poor mental health in shift workers. The researchers found no difference in anxiety or depression when comparing shift and non-shift workers. However, they found that sleep disorders were present in 1 in 5 young adult workers, linked to anxiety and depression. 80% of these shift workers were unaware they had a sleep disorder. The negative effect of sleep disorders on anxiety was even higher for those who worked evening or night shifts. These findings were recently published in Nature Scientific Reports.6

The authors of this article noted that potentially diagnosing and treating sleep disorders in young workers, specifically those who work night and evening shift work, might be essential to improve their mental health. In addition, an increased understanding of the symptoms and management of sleep disorders and their effect on mental health within the medical system and general community may help doctors better identify and treat sleep disorders in young workers and prompt them to seek help.

Melius Consulting and AngloGold Ashanti Australia (AGAA) were recognised as a finalist in the Work Health and Safety Excellence Awards for the collaboration for Improving health, safety and productivity outcomes through identifying and supporting shiftworkers with sleep disorders. This program resulted in a 51% reduction in fatigue alarms with haul truck drivers. An initiative of the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS), these annual awards recognise outstanding solutions and innovations to workplace health and safety in Western Australia.

At Melius Consulting, we can support your organisation in developing methodologies for scientifically assessing, diagnosing, and treating shiftworkers who may have a sleep disorder. In addition, we offer education in conjunction with the Centre for Sleep Science, University of Western Australia to upskill shiftworkers and Health professionals in business to deploy and manage these methodologies.

Get in touch with us today at info@meliusconsulting.com.au

References

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Working Time Arrangements, Australia, 2012. ABS. 2023.
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Working arrangements. ABS. 2023.
  3. Torquati L, Mielke GI, Brown WJ, Burton NW, Kolbe-Alexander TL. Shift Work and Poor Mental Health: A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Studies. Am J Public Health. 2019;109(11):e13-e20. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2019.305278
  4. Brito RS, Dias C, Afonso Filho A, Salles C. Prevalence of insomnia in shift workers: a systematic review. Sleep Sci. 2021;14(1):47-54. doi:10.5935/1984-0063.20190150
  5. Paciorek M, Korczynski P, Bielicki P, Byskiniewicz K, Zielinski J, Chazan R. Obstructive sleep apnea in shift workers. Sleep Med. 2011;12(3):274-7. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2010.06.013
  6. Reynolds AC, Lechat B, Melaku YA, et al. Shift work, clinically significant sleep disorders and mental health in a representative, cross-sectional sample of young working adults. Sci Rep. 2022;12(1):16255. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-20308-2

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