Anxiety and stress impact everyone – shift workers are no exception. Sometimes anxiety can help keep us motivated – “I need to study hard to ensure I pass this test!” “I must make the best presentation for my bosses.” But over time, too much stress and anxiety can take a physical and mental health toll on a person’s well-being. Long periods of stress can cause potentially destructive changes in the body, such as a suppressed immune system, depression, and even more severe outcomes such as stroke or cancer. Both stress and anxiety can be experienced physically – increased heart rate and blood pressure, tight muscles, sweating, and more.
Emotional response to anxiety and stress can include not being able to concentrate, negative self-talk, and feeling restless. Anxiety disorders are ever-present serious conditions that affect nearly 19 million American adults. A few of the specific anxiety disorders are obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and agoraphobia. Agoraphobia manifests in different ways, but generally is a fear of crowds or being outside alone.
A recent study done by researchers in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine discovered that the genes that play a role in insomnia are the same genes involved in depression and anxiety. The study showed that a significant portion of genetic effects are shared between insomnia, anxiety, and depression, and those overlapping genetic mechanisms link the disorders.
Insomnia is a frequently reported issue for shift workers and can lead to an increase in depression, anxiety and stress levels.
The study done by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has been proven correct as a result of adult studies. As an example, an analysis of data collected from over 25,000 individuals in Norway found that persistent insomnia was a risk factor for developing anxiety, but not depression – although anxiety and depression were both found to be present with insomnia. These results suggest that individuals who experience anxiety and depression should also be screened for insomnia.
On the other hand, there are some studies that show insomnia may be a marker for the risk of developing anxiety disorders. With that being said, chronic insomniacs should be screened for anxiety disorders. Most shift workers experience unique challenges that can lead to increased work-related stress. Lack of proper planning can lead to an imbalance in their work environment or family life. Working rotation shifts and long hours also brings its own set of unique challenges. As a result of struggling to adapt to changing work schedules, shift workers don’t typically get enough sleep.
Sleep experts believe that seven to eight hours of sleep is plenty to feel well-rested. Most people don’t get this much sleep, and shift workers typically get even less. There’s even a deeper layer to sleep problems – mainly making sure your sleep quality is where it needs to be, even if your sleeping length already is. The National Institute of Health states that people who work at night, have frequency changes in their shift hours or who are inactive, are at a far higher risk of sleep deprivation or developing insomnia.
According to the journal Sleep, people who work rotating shifts have much lower levels of serotonin, which is the hormone neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that has a significant role in regulating sleep. The study showed the serotonin levels differed vastly between day workers and rotating shift workers – with serotonin levels significantly lower in rotating shift workers.
Not only does low serotonin impact sleep, but low levels of serotonin is also associated with other conditions such as depression, anxiety, and anger. When workers experience the anxiety that sometimes comes with working shift work, they often turn to smoking cigarettes, drugs (both illegal and pharmaceutical) and alcohol to help cope. Although these substances will bring an individual some calm in the short term, they tend to increase stress and anxiety levels over the long term.
Caffeine can reduce sleepiness and increase alertness for a short amount of time, but it can also interrupt sleep patterns. While alcohol can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, it can disrupt sleep later in the night, and therefore increase sleepiness. Medications, such as sleeping pills, can be prescribed to treat chronic insomnia in the short-term. The long-term use of sleep medications is typically only recommended for specific sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
Now that you have an in-depth understanding of how important sleep is and how lack of sleep can lead to anxiety and depression, it’s time to look at some ways to help employees cope with shift work.
Stay in the Moment
Remind your employees to try and stay in the moment. Being self-aware will help your employees to relax, prioritize the tasks that need to be done right then and there. Being in the moment helps them to stay focused on the big picture instead of the small, frustrating tasks that everyone faces day in and day out.
Pay Attention to their Breathing
Have employees listen to their breathing. Does their breathing increase when they are asked to complete a specific task? It could be a point of stress or anxiety. Do they sigh of relief when they get a break? Perhaps they are feeling overwhelmed by work and need some extra sleep. The way a person breathes can be an indicator of how they feel as the body reacts both mentally and physically to stress and anxiety.
Encourage your workers to plan their days, weeks, and months. This will help to alleviate some of the pressure that comes up each day when employees try to fit in all they need and want to do. Planning will help them make the most of the time they have. You as an employer can plan their work schedules as far in advance as possible and ensure your employees have easy access to these schedules.
Habitual smokers often report high rates of sleeplessness. They usually have a hard time falling asleep and a hard time maintaining that sleep. A recent study linked smoking with sleeping disturbances. The study found that cigarette smokers are nearly four times as likely as non-smokers to report feeling unrested after a night’s sleep.
Encourage your workers to use a buddy system, so they can help one another out if needed. They can also keep an eye on the other to ensure they’re getting the proper amount of sleep and not getting overwhelmed by day to day tasks.
Stay Aware of Eating Habits
Shift workers need to pay extra special attention to how their work shift impacts their eating habits. Workers should do their best to eat healthy, routine meals and snacking keep snacking to a minimum – especially when they’re working the night shift.
Prioritize Personal Activities
Shift workers should prioritize their activities out of work so that they complete what they need to and have time left over for the things they want to do. Rather than spending all of their time on the “have to’s” they should save time for the unique activities that they look forward to.
Shift workers should do their best to prioritize activities they enjoy and look forward to in order to help improve stress and anxiety levels.
Encourage Positive Procrastination
Positive procrastination would be an employee giving themselves permission to put off or abandon a task, at least for the moment. This can be used in both their personal and work life. For example, they could temporarily put a repetitive work task on hold and take a short break to help them refocus. They could hold off on mowing the lawn and take a much-needed nap or eat a healthy meal instead. Remind them it’s not necessary to push themselves through something if it will be at the expense of their mental or physical health.
Promote Physical Activity
Shift work often reduces the available opportunities for physical activity and participation in organized sports. For those shift workers who can exercise, it usually occurs as varying and unusual times of the day, which can be especially tricky if their gym isn’t open 24/7. As an employer, you should support workers as they try and keep up with their exercise routine. You may even consider providing them with an on-site gym if you have the resources.
Despite all of the recent studies on sleep, the National Sleep Foundation found that only approximately one-third of individuals with insomnia were asked about the quality of their sleep by their health care providers. Most insomniacs are simply unlikely to raise the issue with their doctors, so are much less likely to raise a concern with their employer. Encourage your workers to be open and transparent about any problems they are experiencing. Remind them you want them to be healthy and happy and that you are there to support them any way possible.