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Benefits and Consequences of Working Long Hour Shifts

written by: Olivia Emisar•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 6/15/2011

Money and steady employment go hand-in-hand with 24/7 work shifts. We have become accustomed to expect overtime pay when working more than 40 hours a week while working shifts in various industries. For some, the pros outweigh the cons, while for others, the reverse is true.

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    Younger Shift Workers

    It seems that younger adults are invincible. Men and women in power plants, police officers and fire fighters are just some of the incredibly strong, fast and capable people who can function well any time of day or night. We need these individuals to keep society safe and productive around the clock and to many of us, they are worth every penny.

    Single men and women encounter some of the same pros and cons as their married counterparts, when it comes having a personal life outside of work. Shift work can be divided into three 8-hour shifts or two 12-hour shifts. The most popular in power plants is the 12-hour shift 4 days in a row with either 3 or 4 days off afterward, depending on whether they just finished day or night shifts. Fire fighters live at the station house during their assigned days, and during emergencies, just like in power plants, there is no such thing as a day off and the shifts can be longer than 12 hours.

    Shift workers in power plants may not leave until their replacement shows up. In many plants, out of courtesy to one another, they start the shift 30 minutes early to give the person they are relieving time to hand over the controls and a chance to get out of plant on time. Occasionally, the relief person gets sick or has an emergency and the worker that has already put in 12 hours may have to continue to work until someone on their day off agrees to come in and relieve him or her. Overtime pay starts at time and a half, moves on to double-time and there is even triple-time.

    Pros for a single individual:

    • Excellent wages that allow for purchases at an early age.
    • 4 days off to combine with weekends and holidays.
    • Working at a job they like and that provides growth.
    • Greater freedom in both time and finances.
    • Avoiding traffic congestion on most shifts.
    • Ability to run errands or do pleasure activities when most people are working.

    Cons for a single individual:

    • Challenging to maintain relationships with friends who work 9 to 5 schedules.
    • Sleep disorders.
    • Loneliness and boredom.
    • Physically demanding work causes health problems as they get older.
    • Difficult to date and mingle with romantic interests who have different schedules.
    • Feeling trapped in the environment.
    • Social life tends to be limited to co-workers.
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    Older Shift Workers

    Older shift workers rarely enter into the shift work world in their advanced age. Instead, they typically start early in their working careers and continue to advance in age and tenure in the same or similar industry.

    Pros for older workers:

    • They are specialists and their level of experience is highly sought-after.
    • Financially, they make more than most people with the same level of education.
    • Most retirement pensions and 401Ks are well funded.
    • Vacations are longer than most workers due to stringing days off with vacations days and swapping work days with other workers.

    Cons for older workers:

    • Marital/partner conflicts.
    • Difficulty sleeping and switching from days to nights.
    • Relentless strain on joints and muscles – very active, physical work creates health issues early in life.
    • Difficult to parent consistently.
    • Missing most major holidays.
    • Nuclear family has a different life and experiences.
    • Depression, lethargy, tiredness are more prevalent in this group.
    • Dissatisfaction with life in general and work in particular.
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    Types of Shift Work and Gender Issues

    Stressful Job Depending on the type of work, some have to re-think their future prospects at some point, no matter how much they love their field and how much they have to contribute. For example, a young, strong woman working as a paramedic from age 20, may not be able or willing to physically continue to lift dead weight onto a gurney into her 40s and well past 60. A young strong man working at a chemical plant may find that his lungs can no longer handle the demands of the job later in life.

    While we tend to think of police officers and fire fighters as shift workers there are other individuals that we tend not to think of as working around the clock:

    • Power plants
    • Chemical plants
    • Miners
    • Emergency operators
    • Emergency room doctors
    • Nurses
    • Telephone operators
    • Repair technicians
    • Call centers
    • Suicide prevention hot-line
    • Prison guards
    • Taxi drivers
    • Hotel personnel
    • Nursing home workers
    • Caregivers to elderly and disabled
    • Military personnel
    • Ship yards
    • Train personnel
    • Airport personnel (mechanics, cleaners, baggage handlers, technicians, etc.)
    • Butcher shops
    • Agricultural plants
    • Bakeries

    All of the above 24/7 shift work schedule pros and cons are varied and the intensity of the cons varies by gender because it affects people at different levels. A new mother will get paid and unpaid leave before having to return to work, but the logistics of finding care for her children at the hours that she has to work can become a nightmare. Men will rarely get paid time off from work to be at home with their newborn and find it financially impossible to take unpaid leave.

    Shift work places additional strain in relationships because the hours kept preclude communication, shared memories of important events and both spouses tend to feel disconnected from each other. Stress can be relentless for all involved with having to wait for problem solving solutions or unable to communicate effectively when needed. Some jobs are more stressful than others and carry their own sets of personal risks associated with the occupation.

    While better pay makes the negatives more tolerable, not all jobs listed above pay well or come with the same benefits.

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    Health Issues

    Studies show that shift workers tend to develop and suffer from a variety of health issues associated with the work schedule over a period of time:

    • Sleep disorders
    • Gastrointestinal issues
    • Disturbance of eating partners
    • Psychological problems
    • Sex problems
    • Epileptic seizures
    • Diabetes
    • Circadian Rhythm altered for workers who must go from one shift to another

    Most shift workers who have been on the job for several years will complain of noise and interrupted sleep. Children, traffic, light, aircraft and telephones are the most commonly reported interruptions when trying to adjust to night shift schedules. While no one will experience the all of the above mentioned health issues all at once, most will have trouble sleeping and coordinating a personal life to integrate well with their work schedule.

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    Western Journal Of Medicine: Health Effects Of Shift Work; Joseph LaDou, MD, Pub:1982 December; 137(6): 525–530.

    Paramedic Photo: Wikimedia Commons; United State Government