Chapter 11 - Well-being

Learning Outcomes

After reading through this chapter, you should be able to:

  • List the body systems affected by non-traditional hours of work.
  • Discuss the effects of non-traditional hours of work on reproductive health.
  • Explain why shift workers have higher incidence of gastrointestinal problems than day workers.

Many studies have found health-related problems associated with non-traditional hours of work. In general, shift workers report a higher number of health complaints than day workers. Shift workers, especially those on rotating shifts, have a higher incidence of sick leave, a higher rate of visits to workplace clinics, and poorer scores on a variety of health scales.

Some of the most common complaints associated with non-traditional hours of work are sleeping problems, fatigue, and irritability. Physical systems affected include gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems. Apart from specific disorders, the adverse effects of such hours on workers’ health also influence their general sense of well-being. Workers regularly report increased levels of stress, increased use of alcohol and other drugs, and a general feeling of weariness. This may be made worse by mental stress related to being less satisfied in the domestic and social areas of their lives.

Gastrointestinal problems

Research has shown that shift workers are four to five times more likely to develop a gastrointestinal disorder, such as peptic ulcers, indigestion, heartburn, flatulence, and constipation. As discussed in the chapter on food, the digestive system is less likely to tolerate some foods at night when it slows down.

In the short term, irregularities in food intake resulting from non-traditional or changing work patterns may lead to digestive problems and gastrointestinal complaints. While the more severe disorders generally develop over time, you can reduce your chances of being affected by them by changing your habits now.

Strategies to reduce long-term gastro-intestinal problems include eating at normal meal times as much as possible. As discussed in the food chapter, you should think about your diet, what you eat and drink and when, and how it makes you feel.

It is important to be aware of early warning signs of gastrointestinal disorders, particularly peptic ulcers, which are one of the most serious. They can be treated fairly easily, however. If you think you may have a digestive disorder, consult your doctor.

Cardiovascular disease

Shift workers have a higher risk than day workers of developing cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure and heart attack. There is also a strong link between cardiovascular disease and genetics. If any of your biological family members have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease in the past, you should pay more attention to your own lifestyle and factors such as exercise, diet, and smoking.

Practically speaking:

  • It is important to know whether your family history includes cardiovascular disease.
  • Regular check-ups of blood pressure and cholesterol can help detect problems early.
  • Be aware that smoking is a major additional risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Always try to maintain a healthy balanced diet, low in animal (and other saturated) fat.
  • Get regular exercise.

Pregnancy and reproductive health in women

There are specific female health problems associated with shift work. Studies have shown that women who work shifts, and night shifts in particular, complain more frequently of irregular menstrual cycles and more severe menstrual pain. Studies have determined a range of factors that women who work non-traditional hours should be aware of, including:

  • an association between rotating shift work and how long it takes to become pregnant
  • a relationship between an increased risk of spontaneous abortion and some forms of shift work
  • a link between pre-term birth and night work
  • an association between rotating shift schedules and lower fetal growth and birth weight

For some of these effects, the differences observed between shift workers and nonshift workers are statistically small. The body of evidence on reproductive health is also relatively small compared to other areas of research, such as effects of shift work on sleep. Nevertheless, it is wise to consider work hours as a potential factor in reproductive health.



General health complaints tend to be higher among shift workers than day workers. Have you experienced any of the following?

Sleeping problems
Checkbox  Yes        Checkbox  No
Checkbox  Yes        Checkbox  No
Frequent colds and flu
Checkbox  Yes        Checkbox  No
Checkbox  Yes        Checkbox  No
Gastrointestinal disorders
(stomach and digestive upsets)

Checkbox  Yes        Checkbox  No
Cardiovascular disease
Checkbox  Yes        Checkbox  No
Pregnancy or reproductive health issues
Checkbox  Yes        Checkbox  No


checkmark Knowledge Check

  • Name four types of health complaints often reported by shift workers.
  • What is the most serious gastrointestinal disorder reported by shift workers?
  • Name three factors that may contribute to cardiovascular disease.
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