Some simple schedule changes — including giving workers more control over their own hours — could help reduce the ill effects of shift work on health, according to a new review of 26 studies.
"When employers are considering changes to shift workers' shifts, they need to consider the effects on health and work-life balance of their employees," said the review's lead author, Dr. Clare Bambra of Durham University in the UK.
About one in five workers does shift work, and working non-standard hours has been firmly linked to a number of mental and physical health problems, Bambra and her team note in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Working nights disrupts normal circadian rhythms, the researchers explain, while also throwing a person out of social synch with the rest of the world.
In the current study, the researchers review 26 studies of employers' attempts to improve workers' health and work-life balance by making organizational changes. Three main types of changes did indeed seem to have benefits for workers' health, they found: speeding up shift rotation, rotating shifts forward through the day rather than backward, and giving workers some control over their schedules.
In fast rotations, a person works fewer days on a given schedule before switching, for example three days in a row in one shift rather than six or seven. Forward-rotating shifts move from morning to afternoon to night, for example, rather than in the reverse or at random.
All three of the studies that looked at worker self-scheduling found benefits for health and work-life balance, Bambra and her colleagues note, suggesting that "even among specific occupational groups such as shift workers, an increase in employee control can have beneficial health, social and organizational effects."
The quality of the studies reviewed varied significantly, and most were small, the researchers write. Nevertheless, Bambra said, "changing from backward to forward rotation, and from slow to fast rotation may be better for employee's health and work-life balance. There is also some evidence that giving employees themselves control over organizing the shifts that they work may improve health."