Aged care workers are some of the hardest working people in the world. Working in a ‘caring’ profession isn’t a job that you clock in and out of from 9 to 5 – it’s has them on their feet for hours on end, shift after shift. And their shifts can be at any time, at any hour.

Nurses or Personal Carers are even working through the night when most people are comfortably in bed. People rely on being cared for. They tirelessly look after people who need their help, and over time this can come at the cost of their own health.

Aged care workers can often find themselves working on little sleep, having eaten very little during or before/after their shift. Also the weight of their work – dealing with people who have serious or chronic conditions and caring for others who are often dependent on them, can also take a serious toll on a nurse’s physical and mental health.

It should be noted that this piece is not saying that people get certain conditions because they are a nurse. These are merely heath effects that nurses and shift workers are prone to get because they work so hard and often have irregular schedules. This by no means should ever put anyone off choosing nursing as a career – rather, it should be taken as a cautionary tale for people, nurses and non-nurses, to be aware of their health.

It is vital that nurses take care of themselves. Skipping a meal here or there, not getting enough sleep or cutting down on “me time” might seem ok in the moment or as a once off, but if you do it too often or it becomes a habit, it can be quite detrimental.

Here are some of the health effects that nurses, and many other shift workers, are prone to;

Circadian Rhythm disrupts Circadian rhythm is just a terminology for regular bodily (physical, mental and behavioural) functions. These functions, when in the optimum or regular level, are what keeps a person healthy and functioning. Disruptions or irregularities can lead to other medical conditions.

  • Body Temperature
  • Respiratory rate
  • Hormonal production
  • Urinating
  • Menstrual cycle
  • Cell Division – a vital process in healing

Brain effects

Sleep is vital, the average adult needs anywhere from 7-8 hours sleep. Shift workers can often find it hard to get a regular amount of sleep because their schedules are so irregular. Nurses and shift workers often find that they have;

  • Sleep loss
  • REM sleep reduction
  • Stage 2 sleep reduction
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced Brain Volume – basically the size of your brain becoming smaller

Mental Health

There is incredible pressure on a nurses to always be at the top of their game. Pressure from patients, co-workers, managers, doctors and even personal issues at home can cause damage to one’s mental health. Also, being around the ill, suffering and dying can also take it’s toll.

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Neuroticism – a developed personality trait that can include anything from anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, envy, frustration, jealousy, and loneliness.
  • Reduced Vigilance/Concentration
  • “Burnout Syndrome” or compassion fatigue

Cardiovascular Disorders

Research has shown that shift workers have a 40% increased risk for many heart/ cardiovascular disorders such as;

  • Angina pectoris – chest pain or discomfort due to coronary heart disease
  • Hypertension – abnormally high blood pressure
  • Myocardial Infarction – also known as a heart attack

Gastrointestinal disorders

Much like cardiovascular disorders, many nurses have an increased chances of developing these conditions either temporarily or chronically;

  • Indigestion – symptoms may include upper abdominal fullness, heartburn, nausea, burping or upper abdominal pain
  • Heartburn – a burning sensation in the central chest or upper central abdomen
  • Abdominal or stomach pain – this can be temporary or a serious chronic problem
  • Flatulence – passing of gas

These are some more extreme health effect of shift work – which can be caused by anything from stress to exposure to certain triggers. Again, these can happen to anyone, not just nurses or shift workers.

  • Increased Cancer
  • Breast Cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

Reproductive effects

  • Miscarriage
  • Low birth weight
  • Prematurity

If you are a night shift worker, please be sure to look after yourself.

Make sure you eat, get adequate sleep, take breaks and be kind to yourself. If you have a loved one that is a nurse, then be aware that they are at risk of having negative health effects, and try to care for them as they care for others. A nurse’s health is just as important as a patient’s.

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