Women on Night Shift: The Perils They Face

(First of Two Parts)

Working nights is called the graveyard shift – could there be a kernel of truth to the expression?

Today, most industries require their employees to work on shifts ‘round the clock – BPO-IT companies, media outfits, and hospitals, among others, are manned by workers who put in the hours to ensure seamless, uninterrupted operation.

And since women now take on a more active role in society, it isn’t a surprise that they, too, work when the rest of the world is asleep.

Based on what I gathered from the Philippine Commission on Women website, the October 2010 Labor Force Survey (LFS) showed an increase in the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for females at 49.7% (from 49.3% in 2009). Female employment was estimated at 14.2 million.

Clearly, women have come a long way—they have moved away from their traditional roles of homemaking and child-rearing and now successfully maintain both work and home simultaneously. And today, they brave the dark and set off to work, despite the perils that working on the graveyard shift pose.

For single women, money, it seems, is an important factor. When a job involves night shift, the pays are usually higher and the perks, better.

A friend of mine who used to work as a pre-school teacher gave up her day job for a more lucrative offer to work in a BPO company. According to her, “It’s just a matter of adjustment. What’s giving up your usual sleep routine when you can enjoy a higher salary, extensive medical benefits, private movie screenings, and other privileges?”

Yes, what’s trading sleep for perks? Well apparently, people on night shifts, women in particular, are unaware that night-work could be taking a serious toll on their health.

Working Nights: A Cause for Health Concern

In a study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute,  night-shift female workers in the United States were found to have a 35 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer and 60 percent increased risk of breast cancer.

What is to blame? According to researchers of the published study, lowered levels of melatonin seem to be the culprit. When we remain awake throughout the night, our body doesn’t release enough melatonin, a hormone that inhibits tumor development. Melatonin is released at night; its production peaks just before we go to sleep, so it isn’t a wonder that night-shift workers’ chances of developing cancer are higher compared to those who get a good night’s sleep.

A new acquaintance, Chelsea, a 27-year-old mom who’s on her sixth year in the BPO industry, found out she has a lump in her left breast during their company’s annual physical exam. She was devastated when her oncologist confirmed her worst fear: she has stage 2 breast cancer.

When asked if she believes studies linking night-shift work to breast cancer, she shrugged it off. “Yes, I’ve read stuff like that but I don’t [believe] it has something to do with my health. My mom had it, so I guess mine’s genetic,” she said.  She even told me that she would definitely go back to her night job when she gets better.

Related literature also brings to light an alarming fact. In a WebMD feature, Frank Scheer PhD, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said that, “There is strong evidence that shift work is related to a number of serious health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.”

Studies indicated that lowered blood level of cortisol (the stress hormone that stimulates heart rate, digestive system, breathing, and other functions during the day) is the cause of this.

Also mentioned on the WebMD article were the short-term health effects of working on the night-shift. These are gastrointestinal symptoms like upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and heartburn; increased risk of injuries and accidents; insomnia; and decreased quality of life.

Not getting enough sleep wreaks havoc on our immune system, making it vulnerable and less able to fight off infection and cancerous cells.

This makes me wonder: if the health risks outweigh the benefits one could reap from working nights, shouldn’t we just all work at daytime?

Well, some of us don’t have that option. Another friend who works for a media outfit that requires her to be on the job from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. has this to say, “Sure, there are health risks, but which job doesn’t pose such? I believe [it’s] a matter of knowing your limits; if your body signals you that it needs rest, slow down, breathe. Personally, I make time to rejuvenate. I go to the spa when my schedule permits. I work out. I eat well. I take care of myself so I can perform my job well.”

I’m no stranger to the ill-effects of shift work, and I believe that such effects transcend genders. My husband, a media practitioner, has been working on a shift since 2002. He leaves home at 2 a.m. and gets home at 5 p.m on ‘normal’ days.  During the Corona impeachment trial, he gets home by 8 p.m. – very taxing, his job is. And for a time, it took a toll on his health. His blood sugar level shot up and now he’s on maintenance.

While it’s true that most Filipinas who work on night shifts receive heftier salary and better benefits compared to most female workers who hold an eight-to-five job, I wonder if what they’re getting is commensurate to the health hazards they face.

So, if you’re working on a night shift, is there anything you can do to protect yourself from these disturbing health hazards?