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Hazards of the Night Shift

Some workers prefer the flexibility that jobs with nonstandard hours can provide. But for many, working the night shift undermines family life -- and it can leave them more vulnerable to disease.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013
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Working nonstandard hours (between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. during weekdays and any time during weekends) takes a toll on the health, work/family balance and marriages of employees who work such schedules.

That's according to several new studies, including one from the Urban Institute, which finds 25 percent of workers in the lowest wage quartile work most of their hours on a nonstandard schedule. The report, Nonstandard Work Schedules and the Well-Being of Low-Income Families, finds, for example, that low-income men with nonstandard schedules spend 27 minutes less per day with their school-age children than comparable men with standard work schedules.

Approximately 17 million men and women (15 percent of the nation's full-time workers) logged more than half their work hours on nonstandard schedules, according to the report. The most common jobs with nonstandard schedules are security guards and gaming surveillance officers (56 percent of whom have nonstandard work schedules); waiters and waitresses (53 percent); laborers and freight, stock and material movers (48 percent); and nursing, psychiatric and home-health aides (44 percent).

For the majority of the workers (76 percent), these are full-time jobs, the report finds.

The report also notes that lower-income women with preschool-age children are up to 30 percent more likely than other women to work nonstandard schedules. Companies that rely on nonstandard schedules need to be more cognizant of their employees' family time, says Maria Enchautegui, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute who wrote the report, which is based on Census Bureau data from 2011.

"At least once a month, schedule a Saturday or Sunday off for these workers so they can spend quality time with their families, because some of them never get those days off," she says. "Paid time off, in general, tends to be rare in these occupations." 

Working nonstandard hours -- the night shift, in particular -- can also be hazardous to employees' physical health, according to two recent studies.

For men, working the overnight shift puts them at greater risk than their 9-to-5 peers of getting prostate cancer, according to a study by Brigham and Women's Hospital of 2,017 "shift-working" American males.

And for women, those who work night shifts for more than 30 years are twice as likely to contract breast cancer as other women, according to Canadian researchers at the Queen's Cancer Research Institute and the British Columbia Cancer Agency, who examined 1,134 Canadian women who had breast cancer and compared them with 1,179 women who did not.

The reasons for why graveyard-shift schedules appear to make employees more vulnerable to these diseases aren't yet clear. Overnight shift work may inhibit the body from producing enough melatonin, which may leave men more vulnerable to prostate cancer, Erin E. Flynn-Evans, a physiologist who led the Brigham and Women's Hospital study, told the Boston Herald.

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In some occupations, working the night shift is simply unavoidable.

"Security is a 24/7 industry -- it doesn't stop," says Brent O'Bryan, vice president of learning and development at AlliedBarton, a Conshohocken, Pa.-based security firm that employs 60,000 people throughout the United States. "There's no closing time." 

In fact, many of the people who work as security guards at AlliedBarton cite the opportunity to work nights as a benefit, because it lets them attend school or pursue other activities during the day, he says.

"We attract a lot of students, retirees and dual-income earners who like to have that flexibility," he says. "Most of the people who apply for jobs with us understand the 24/7 nature of our operations and are prepared to manage their schedules accordingly."

In some cases, employees are permitted to take night courses via computer during their late-night shifts, so long as clients are OK with it, says O'Bryan. "It can help keep them alert and engaged," he says.

Employees can also transfer to day-time shifts as they become available, he adds.

Security guards, registered nurses and home-health aides will be among the fastest-growing occupations by 2020, says Enchautegui, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

"Many of these occupations will employ women with families," she says. "In many cases, these are low-wage jobs with limited flexibility. As time passes, we as a nation are going to have to address this issue."

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