Dangers in the night
I couldn't sleep, so naturally, that's when I ran across all the most frightening McKnight's stories about the risks of not sleeping at night, especially for long-term care shift workers.
None of it was new news, of course. At least 40,000 years ago, in a study reported by investigative journalists at “The Daily Neanderthal,” cave painters working by firelight in the wee hours were proven to have heightened rates of mortality.
More recently, modern scientists have questioned that study's validity, as it failed to consider the impact of ravenous predators drawn to scantily clad, oily and well-illuminated prey. But I think the broader point remains: not sleeping at night, which I define as when it's dark, can be bad.
"Study uncovers deep effects of night shift work on body,” the most recent McKnight's headline reads, and in an act of unbidden helpfulness, the article is followed by a list of similar news reports:
Night shift work is tied to breast cancer
Night shift work a risk factor for diabetes?
Night-shift workers at highest risk for sleep problems, unique CDC study shows
New nurses on night and OT shifts face higher injury risk
Shift work exacting a heavy toll on women, study reveals
Night shift work causing climate change, ebola and ISIS, researchers say
Truthfully, I made one of those up, simply because it's 2 a.m. and I'm writing when I should be sleeping. This proves that misguided attempts at humor are another one of the great underreported risks of night shift work.
As a related aside, all of this illustrates one of my least favorite things about the Web — the way it makes associations and stokes real fears you didn't know you had. How often does an innocent Google query like “night shift worker early death” become an ambush of truly frightening information? Google it. It's often.
An impulsive search for “kale recipes,” for instance, will inevitably point to articles titled, “Kale identified as murder weapon in gruesome salad slayings,” or “Kale: miracle cure or toxic death bullet?” One thing leads to another, and that's how this one particular McKnight's story has now provoked continuing ghastly visions of my own certain and fast-approaching demise.
But back to the problem at hand, the article does its best to explain what happens when we don't sleep when we're supposed to. “Staying up at night reduced the natural killer cell-mediated immune response and led to a loss in temporal coordination between the human circadian rhythm and the external environment.”
Exactly. I couldn't have said it better myself, even if I had sat up all night thinking about how to explain it in the most complicated and opaque way possible. I still don't know what it means, though I'm getting a little sleepy trying to figure it out.
What are the solutions, you might ask? Let's be honest, there probably aren't many. In the long-term care profession, we exist to provide care to vulnerable seniors, and like the rest of us, they tend to exist 24/7. Driven by pesky motivators like “passion” and "mission,” I'm guessing we'll keep meeting their needs whenever they occur, in darkness and light, and accept the consequences.
But we're not totally helpless. We still have two of the mind's greatest weapons at our disposal — ignorance and denial.
So I propose we simply stop Googling “night shift worker health impact disease death.” And from now on, Night Shifts will be officially known as Day Shifts II and III.
Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former SNALF.com at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.