If you’ve ever experienced shift work, you know it can be extremely taxing on your overall wellbeing. On the other hand, in some places it is simply unavoidable – you have to keep some factories and healthcare institutions running. Now scientists at the University of Waterloo found that irregular work schedules can cause several health-related issues, including a poor defence against infections.

Adjusting to an irregular work schedule is nearly impossible and your immune system will suffer. Image credit: Michael Cornelius via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Adult lives revolve around a work schedule. We may think it’s unfair or that it should be focused on other things like family and personal wellbeing. But in actual reality, it is work that is shaping our distribution of energy, efforts and even sleep cycles. That is why it is not surprising that shift-work and irregular work schedules have a huge impact on our health.

Irregular work schedules have an impact on a person's circadian clock, because sleep-wake schedules become messy. Scientists have now developed a mathematical model to study disruptions of circadian clock and how they affect the immune system. Immune system depends on healthy circadian rhythms, because you heal and reset when you are sleeping. Also, you are likely to encounter dangerous pathogens early in the morning while commuting to work.

Scientists found that effect of a disrupted circadian clock on the immune system depends on several different factors, including if you are a man or a woman. Stéphanie Abo, one of the authors of the study, explained: “Shift-work likely affects men and women differently. Compared to females, the immune system in males is more prone to overactivation, which can increase their chances of sepsis following an ill-timed infection.”

Scientists also found that the immune response varies with the time of infection. They mathematical model suggests  that right before we go to bed is the worst time to get an infection, because at that time the body is least prepared to produce the pro- and anti-inflammatory mediators needed during an infection. Overall, people who work irregular schedules are more susceptible to viral infections – something that is very important in times like this, when COVID-19 pandemic still hasn’t been defeated. And because their immune system is weaker, they are likely to experience harsher symptoms.

But what can be done? Shift work is still an essential part of every economy. In simple terms, there are no ways to organise work in some factories and even institutions without irregular work schedules. Scientists estimate that something around a quarter of the modern-day labour force has an irregular work schedule. You need to understand the risks and try to compensate with physical activity and healthy rest.


Source: University of Waterloo